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A story from someone who left prison in faith
‘I think we probably ought to open some wine,’ sagely (and characteristically, I would come to learn) replied the unfortunate vicar whose afternoon plans I had almost certainly just scuppered merely by attending his church’s lunchtime mass. The mass wasn’t so much the problem, of course; but rather my mumbled disclosure to him that, at about the same time the previous day, I’d been nervously shuffling from one prison-issue-plimsole-shod foot to the other as the gate of HMP High Down slowly rolled open, ready to rebirth me into the world, my wrongdoing atoned-for, my debt to society repaid.
It was only very recently, when I heard a serving prisoner describe prison as a ‘kind of death; maybe you’re reborn one day,’ that the parallels – doubtless blindingly obvious to many a cleverer person than I – between prison and baptism struck me. It doesn’t do to stretch the comparison too far – the symbolic death of baptism isn’t a punishment meted out by a vengeful God – but there’s certainly something there. The problem, though, is that secular society doesn’t truly believe that I have repaid my debt; that I have atoned for that which I did to land me behind a cell door, and that the remorse I profess is genuine. But my church does. And that makes all the difference in the world. The task of rebuilding my life is a long one and a tough one – one that will continue for many years. At the heart of everything I’ve sought to do in the four years since my short prison sentence, though, has been Christ – Christ encountered each week in the holy sacrifice of the mass; over post-service coffee (or fizz on one of the (many) Sundays deemed to call for it) with my brothers and sisters in Him; at the pub with the serving team; by e-mail with the parish priest when things seem bleak. I know already, and will come to recognise more and more, that the supportive, compassionate, forgiving, tolerant faith community into which I was so warmly and immediately welcomed after my exile from society truly live out the Gospel, and that, without them, I would be nowhere.
Matt served half of a nine-month sentence at HMP High Down in 2015. He is now studying for a postgraduate degree in Criminology and works with a number of criminal justice-related charities.