Thursday, 17 December 2009

Lifers Carols: Christmas begins here

One of the most significant party of Christmas for me is the Lifers Carol Service at Aylesbury Gaol. It’s now a Young Offenders Institution, where all male young offenders in the country serving life sentences are imprisoned. According to the book of words,
The prison was opened as a county gaol in 1847 and served as such until 1890 when it became a women's prison. Two new wings were added in 1902 serving initially as an Inebriates Centre and in the 1930s as a girls' borstal. In 1959, the prison was converted to house adult male prisoners and in 1961, it changed again to house young male offenders aged between 17 and 21. In 1989, Aylesbury was designated as a long term young offender institution. Aylesbury holds the longest sentenced young adult males in the English prison system.

At Christmas, the chaplaincy organises a carol service to which lifers’ families are invited. They are able to give a small present provided by the Institution, whilst prisoners give a Christmas candle to their families, to remember them at home with everyone else at Christmas.

Aylesbury GaolImage by R P Marks via Flickr

Families are brought in from the visits area, and then inmates. Fr John Fleming, RC chaplain, expertly planned and led the service. From the front I couldn’t miss an unforgettable rush of emotion as people were reunited in this context — tears, laughter, one or two whoops of joy, even, and two people dancing in silly little circles. After the service there is some socialising time afterwards, when it's very important if you're an extraneous visitor not to get in the way — but a welcome opportunity to touch base with chaplains, volunteers and staff.

Everybody puts themselves out to make this rather extraordinary hour and a half happen. Supervision of such an event requires real professionalism in depth, in that it has to feel generally light and personal, but, of course with security and safety routines to be maintained for the good of all. Staff were fabulous, and the whole evening good humoured, passionate and engaged, with, sounding like a wine writer, undertones of comfort and joy. How strange it should take the birth of a baby 2,000 years ago to trigger such an encounter ...
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Mike Peatman said...

A fascinating account, which must leave you with a mix of feelings.

Anonymous said...

Not strange at all given, who the baby was :-) I suspect it was exactly for these people that he came.

My own recent experiences in HMP Winchester mean I can sort of get some idea of the emotion of the occasion - it sounds like a wonderful idea, and quite broadminded on the part of the governors.

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