The start was nervously anticipated: how it begins, who chooses to participate, and how they react to us, are crucial elements to the overall success of any project working with young offenders.
This time, the Ten Ten project was being run by three people: Martin (who has being working in young offender institutions for a number of years with Ten Ten), Sarah (who has long had a passion for work with offenders and ex-offenders, and had done occasional prison work in the past), and Jimena (first time working in this environment). The fourth member of the team – our “man on the inside” – was Father Roger Reader, Catholic chaplain in Feltham prison and long-term collaborator of Ten Ten Theatre.
It started well. In fact, it started with Mass for Ash Wednesday. There were over 40 young offenders attending Mass. In a prison population of 800 from all religions and none, that’s about 5%. Is that a better rate than the average workplace!?
After the service, most boys went back to their cells and we were left with a core of 10 who would become our “group”. Each of these lads was aged between 16 and 21. Even now, we don’t know what crimes were committed by these boys – certain clues were given through conversation but it wasn’t appropriate to as, and by the end of the project we related to them as people not criminals, so our curiosity in their crimes faded over time. However, given that some of them were facing lengthy sentences, it would be safe to assume that the crimes committed were some of the most serious and harmful.
Martin began with an introduction to the project, then all three leaders led a series of exercises – call them icebreakers, call them warm-ups – which tested the engagement of the group and their willingness to take part. The group scored highly on both counts.
In fact, when Martin asked the group how they felt about acting… reading… miming… (gulp) dancing…. (GULP) singing… there were some guffaws, some murmurings of embarrassment and ridicule, but not to the extent that we sensed the project would fail. There was most definitely potential for development here.
Perhaps even more encouraging was their desire to engage with self-reflection and prayer.
“To introduce the idea of the Stations of the Cross, I placed on the floor of the chapel images from the 14 Stations – for example, Veronica wiping the face of Jesus, or Jesus falling for the second time. I asked the group to walk around the chapel in silence contemplating how they personally felt about each image. After a couple of minutes of this, I then asked them to stand by the image which they felt most drawn to. I was pleased to see the lads position themselves across the room near different images. They weren’t following the crowd, they were taking it very seriously. One by one, they shared why they chose their particular Station of the Cross.
“Two lads chose the Fourth Station: Jesus Meets His Mother. One of them said it was because his mother died when he was four and it made him think about her. Another chose the Fifth Station: Simon Helps Jesus Carry His Cross. It reminded him of times when so-called “friends” had let him down. Another chose the Ninth Station: Jesus Falls for the Third Time. It brought to mind the many times he had failed. For each of them, they were responding personally, fusing their own hearts and minds with Christ’s suffering and developing an affinity with the person of Jesus and the people who encountered him on his final steps.
“At the end of the session, we gave each of the participants an image of Jesus to hang on their cells. Their “homework” was to spend a couple of minutes each day simply gazing at the face of Jesus. Some couldn’t believe how “easy” their homework was!
“As I was handing out images, I called one of the lads who was about to leave without an image; he turned around, looked at me with a cheeky smile and said: “Miss, you know my name!” I giggled and said: “I do”. He took the image and left, and I was left there stunned.
“What I loved about that moment wasn’t the fact that I remembered his name but that this lad, having been called by his name, left the room looking attentively at the image of Jesus. I knew then what that moment was, a reminder of Jesus’ love for us:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour” (Isaiah 43:1-3).
“I have no clue what the rest of the day looked like for this young man, but I just prayed he could somehow feel the love of Jesus in his heart even in the moments of darkness. I was deeply moved by this moment and I will be forever grateful for his gratitude in my remembering his name.”