Prayers for People Under Pressure
- Tuesday, May 13, 2008
One aspect of this vulnerability appeared on the second day of my sentence when a young black prisoner came up to me and said, “I’ve just had a letter from me brief, but I can’t read it. Would you do us a favor and read it?”
The letter I read aloud was a threatened eviction notice from the Lambeth Council. After some discussion it emerged that the prisoner’s brother could take care of it by paying off the arrears in installments. “Okay, let’s tell the council that,” said my new friend, whose name was Stokesey. “But I can’t write either. Could you write it for me?”
So I wrote an appropriate letter to the Lambeth Council, and Stokesey signed it. He was so delighted that he skipped away holding the envelope above his head, declaring at the top of his voice, “That MP geezer’s got fantastic joined-up writing.”
This commercial for my graphological skills fell on the ears of a surprisingly receptive audience, for approximately one third of British prisoners are unable to read or write. They often conceal this vulnerability from each other, but it is revealed in the literacy tests all prisoners have to take at the beginning of their sentences. So an older prisoner who is willing to volunteer for the role of an amanuensis soon becomes a useful member of the community. What I could never have predicted was that my usefulness would lead to the starting up of a prison prayer group.
During the early weeks of my sentence I did a lot of letter reading and writing. At first this was the cause of some humor. One day an old convict came up to me and said, “Jonno, do you realize you is havin’ a fantastic impact on the girls of Brixton? They can’t believe the sudden improvement in the quality of their love letters.”
Whatever was or was not happening among the ladies of Brixton, I got quite a few signs and comments of appreciation from my fellow prisoners. One of them was an Irish burglar, unsurprisingly called Paddy. He invited me into his cell for coffee and made a little speech of thanks. “On behalf of the lads I’d really like to thank you for all the letter writing you’ve done for us,” he began, “and I’d like to give you a present to say how much we appreciate it. So you can have anything you like—free of charge—from me library.”
At this point Paddy dived underneath the left-hand side of his bed and brought up an amazing selection of hard-core porn magazines.
“No, thank you,” I said, obviously reverting to the persona of a pompous politician because Paddy took umbrage.
“Too good for you, eh?” he said with a bitter edge to his voice. Before I had time to reply, Paddy’s fertile mind thought up an ingenious explanation for my refusal.
“Ooh . . . if it’s boys you’re after,” he said, now diving under the right-hand side of the bed and coming up with an alternative selection of hard porn pictures.
“No, no,” I said hurriedly. “I used to like the first sort of magazines you showed me, but these days I’m trying a different path in life.”
“So what kind of path would that be?” asked Paddy.
“Well, if you really want to know, it’s the path of praying to Jesus and obeying his teachings,” I replied. “It’s a path that has changed my life.”
A long silence spread over us in that cell. It was eventually broken by Paddy who in a slow voice said the unexpected words, “You know, I’d really like to try that path myself.”
Before I could respond, the floodgates opened within Paddy, and he poured out a litany of woes describing all that was wrong with his present path of life. Much of his misery came from the kinds of complaints that are often heard in the world of freedom.
“There’s no meaning to my life . . . my wife doesn’t understand point to it . . . my relationships keep going wrong . . . my life’s just empty . . . totally unfulfilled.”
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