WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Prison unit ‘miracles’ challenge churches

The Alpha Unit at the Manawatu Prison with its ability to bring about radical change in prisoners, presents society with a challenge.

The unit is a place where ‘miracles plainly happen over and over again’, according to a former superintendent of the youth prison, Rae Bell, who says he had never struck anything like the Alpha Unit, which featured in Bob’s story in last month’s issue of Wel-com [August 2006 14, 16].

Rae, who worked in the justice system for more than 30 years, says the climate of the unit is conducive to change in some of the most hardened criminals. The staff quickly learn to relate to the inmates as people and Rae believes it is this personal relating which alters people.

‘The staff relate to the chaps and accept them for who they are rather than expecting them to change or to become religious.’

The staff tend to be down-to-earth people who accept a different way of life. The 20 people who live in the Alpha Unit have quite a spiritual way of life. For guys who have had a hard life this is a big change but they accept it.

He says it is important that they have someone to relate to when they go out into the world.

And here’s the challenge. ‘The exclusiveness and structure of our mainline churches must be examined,’ Rae said in a recent report to the Prison Chaplains Board.

‘Don’t expect that they are going to go into a church when they get out and feel comfortable. How would many of our congregations assimilate a couple of ex-prisoners, ex-gang members who chose to worship with them?

‘Alpha differs from a faith unit that may have a broader application and interpretation. Alpha inmates commit to living in an environment where the “way, truth and light” is a constant vision.’

The programmes Alpha runs incorporate change from inside the individual, bible study, worship, fellowship, mentoring, faith journey/Christian living and encounters with Christ.

‘The Alpha Unit’s programme gives inmates a new dimension of life and an internal vision of self they have not had before,’ the report said.

‘In over 30 years of association with prisons and chaplaincy, I have not witnessed a greater and stronger inmate spiritual response over such a sustained period.’

Most inmates remain in Alpha for a year though Bob has been there five, Rae says.