When a decision was made to run Alpha in the women's prison in 2012, it was seen as an experimental initiative given the expected challenges. Former Prison Chaplain Fr. Christo insisted that members of the prison ministry proceed bravely and in the end a successful six month programme was completed.
For the group, success/failure was determined vis-à-vis course duration, willingness, cooperation and flexibility of the prison authorities and capabilities of facilitators. In the end the Alpha ministry visited only twice per month but achieved so much. Hilary Dolly one of the Alpha coordinators, gives the story of Alpha in the women's prison.
Q. What were some of the challenges faced in running Alpha in the women’s Prison and how did you overcome them?
Time is always an issue. Though we had a 90-minute class allocation, we were at the mercy of the availability of prison guards and consequent escort into the facility. At times, it didn’t matter how early we arrived, there was no guarantee that we would start on time, we did however always have to end at the prescribed time. Additionally even though we could use longer/shorter videos the post-video discussions were so lively that we always wished for more time. We encouraged them to continue the discussions in our absence.
We are not able to mingle freely among and between inmates. Closeness, affectionate touches/hugs are prohibited. So we did not have table group discussions. Because of this we limited the class size to a single group of about 20 persons in order to allow for some intimacy.
Attendance at religion based classes in prisons is not compulsory. One of our successes was being able to get desirous attendees to commit to the course beforehand. Unfortunately the lengthy duration of the course meant that we lost some participants along the way, namely those who had to attend other compulsory classes that started in the interim, or those who were released from prison before the end of the course. The recommendation here is that the duration of the course as well as participants be pre-determined. Participants must be selected from those who would be in prison for that length of time.
We conducted the course in a very large room which affected the efficiency of the sound. The prison provided some assistance with their not-always-reliable amplification system, but we eventually had to buy our own amplifier. Though the inmates insisted that they could hear, I knew that there were things that they missed. Some of Nicky Gumbel’s jokes, cultural references etc., had to be explained.
We definitely learnt some lessons along the way. In retrospect I feel it may have been better to stop the video for a minute, rather than try to recall some of the contents after the full 40 or so minutes of the tape … the potency of the moment had been lost! Also the possibility exists that for future Alpha Courses in the women’s prison, permission can be obtained to have 8 consecutive weeks of visits (4 times per month instead of twice per month, as obtains at present) for the conduct of the revised 8 session Alpha Course.
Q. How do you see Alpha as a tool to reduce crime in Trinidad and Tobago as well as the re-offender rates?
Prison for many inmates is a respite of sorts from the chaos of their ‘normal’ lives. Prison for many of them is the turnaround in their lives. The work of the groups like Alpha is needed to help strengthen this conversion experience in the hope that they will persevere and maintain it when they are released back into the world they left.
It must be emphasized that we are by no means the only religious-based group that visits the prison. The evangelization of inmates therefore is enhanced, strengthened/weakened by several different Christian denominations. Time available to inmates in prison seemed to allow them the opportunity, space and freedom to reflect deeply on the truth and beauty of what was presented in videos. The Alpha format is very attractive and seems to be much different from the usual hum-drum classes. The real-life individuals in the videos also seemed to help … i.e. not just the stereotype of old, boring teachers/preachers. (The newer version of the course therefore should be even all the more appealing.)
Q. Was it easy getting Alpha volunteers and helpers to assist and where did you find such help?
The course was conducted by our regular prison ministry members. I believe however that the Alpha Course should be administered by facilitators who are familiar with and known by the inmates. It takes a while for inmates to trust outsiders. One of them in whom we have seen remarkable change over the years, recently ‘confessed’ to us that there is a tendency for them to be suspicious of people who come in to ‘preach’ to them, if these visitors have not themselves experienced prison life (i.e. reformed ex-prisoners). We know this to be true of her response to us, and Alpha helped to break down that barrier.
Q. What was the general attitude of the inmates to Alpha and how did this change over time?
Participants thoroughly enjoyed the course, and many others were clamouring to join. Our classes are not exclusive to any religious background. It is hoped that on release from prison many would continue a faith-filled journey. One Alpha attendee (fallen away Catholic) who is now out of prison is attending counselling etc. in one of our parishes. She speaks of the change that Alpha had on her and of her desire to find the love shared through Alpha within the Church. The life of ex-prisoners is not at all easy with finding employment and acceptance.
Q. Alpha’s formula is food, talk, discussion. Do you think the inmates openly shared their views and what tools are used by Alpha to encourage open and honest discussion?
Despite constraints mentioned above, some very lively discussions were held. The circumstances of prison life very often result in inmates being on their best behaviour with outsiders. Because the particular participants were mostly inmates well known to us, we were of the impression that the views fears, doubts, struggles to accept certain teachings etc. were heartfelt and spontaneously expressed. Typical examples were:
• Seeing others as children of God
• Loving those they do not like
Directing questions to less responsive participants was not always successful. At times too there may have been personality ‘clashes’. Inmates are not too tolerant of perceived self-righteousness. If ordinary social interaction is difficult outside the walls of a prison, it would be silly not to understand or be sympathetic to the harsh realities of daily forced confinement within the prison. Incidents such as these were easily defused by inmates themselves or by our intervention. This type of situation, in my mind was easily dealt with because we were not strangers to the participants. I wish to reemphasize the particular situation of prison life which demands that those called to minister to them be people whom they have come to know and trust. Assistance from other facilitators would be most welcome but with our presence also.
Q What testimonies can you share of how lives were touched or changed through their participation in Alpha?
• “The Alpha programme has made a positive impact on my life. The reason I say this is because of the background I came from, not being able to build a relationship with Jesus. I've been in the prison for six years. Within that time I would attend services, but my mind just wasn’t into it at all. And then one of my friends sign my name for this Alpha course, without me knowing … Actually I was very curious … Anyway I believe that was the Holy Spirit working in her. And today I can proudly say that I’ve surely built a relationship with My Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Thanks to the Alpha programme. May the good Lord continue blessing this course and to you …… “
• “Being in this Alpha class has taught me a lot. After each class I always look forward for the next lesson. I have learn so much and each day I understand the Bible more and more. Now I have more faith, joy, meekness, kindness and I am happy with myself. I have change a lot. I have gotten closer to God. I think I can now share the Word to others in here, and when I go home I can also tell my children, my grandchildren and the people I am around.
I must also say thanks you ladies for your time and patient with me and the other people in the class … “