Around 10 years ago, the French Bible Society began working with Protestant and Catholic chaplains to ensure that prisoners’ requests for Bibles are met.
“Prisoners are used to Bibles being available, so they ask for them,” says Vincent Leclair, the Catholic Chaplain General for prisons. “But there can be lots of different reasons behind their request. For example, some prisoners can find it reassuring to have a Bible at a difficult time.”
Chaplains often offer personal support and group Bible study sessions, but prisoners spend many hours alone with the Bible. It’s during such times that some kind of guidance would be very welcome. The following stories from three prisoners demonstrate just how vital such guidance can be.
Arnaud: ‘It’s my birthday’
Mr Leclair tells the story of 20-year-old prisoner Arnaud. He asked to see a chaplain almost as soon as he was imprisoned.
“At our first meeting he said, ‘It’s my birthday today’,” recalls Mr Leclair. “He hadn’t celebrated with anyone. I wished him a happy birthday and gave him what I had: a small booklet designed to introduce readers to the prophets of Israel.”
Getting into the Bible
When Mr Leclair next saw Arnaud, he’d read the whole booklet and asked for a Bible so that he could read about Elijah, Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah. They’ll move on to tackle the New Testament together, then Arnaud will prepare for baptism. He will be released 15 days before his baptism.
“This story shows me how important it is to have materials which help people get into the Bible, to have guidance in reading it to and to be able to talk about it to somebody,” Mr Leclair emphasises. “People who ask for a Bible aren’t necessarily used to reading it. They are interested in it, and demand is high, but at the same time they need guidance. For example, it would be good to be able to give them a Bible reading guide featuring key texts.”
Cyrille: ‘What should I believe in?’
It was when Mr Leclair was visiting his cellmate that Cyrille asked for a Bible. He said that he had never read it and knew nothing about Christianity. Mr Leclair gave him a copy of the New Testament and Psalms and told him that he would come back to talk to him. Weeks went by. Cyrille confirmed that he was reading it but didn’t have any questions.
Then one day he started to ask lots of questions. He read Mark, then Luke, then John. After that he read Acts. Once he reached Romans, things got tough: his thinking stemmed from the Bible but focused on himself.
Salvation and forgiveness
“After that, we talked about the Old Testament and about the story of Cain and Abel,” Mr Leclair explains. “Cyrille suddenly asked me, ‘What should I believe in to go to heaven?’ I answered, ‘What do you think?’ Drawing on what he remembered from reading the Bible, we concluded together that ‘what we need to be saved is a God who is able to forgive us’.
“Coming to this conclusion remains a very significant experience for me. It allowed Cyrille to make a journey inside himself to come to terms with his past, find peace and move towards faith. Reading the Bible with supporting materials can genuinely move people towards faith and it would be really good to be able to offer guidance based on key themes linked with law and justice, such as, in this case, salvation and forgiveness, or perhaps freedom, justice and truth. Themes which have a very strong biblical foundation whilst also being specifically relevant in the prison setting.”
Pierrick: ‘You’ve come at just the right time …’
Pierrick thought nothing of partying, smashing things up, fighting and ending up in prison. Then one day Mr Leclair visited and found him peaceful and alone in a silent cell. Pierrick said, “You’ve come at just the right time. I was reading the Bible!” He had borrowed it from the library.
“He reads in an amazingly modern way,” says Mr Leclair. “He has a very mature approach, he adopts a certain distance and he’s perhaps a bit intellectual. As he’s been reading, his life has changed dramatically. He’s calmer, more aware of his behaviour. I’m astonished to see how easily he tackles the Old Testament, with an innate sense of historical criticism, going beyond the issue of whether the facts are true. ‘That’s not the important thing,’ he says. ‘What’s important is that these texts tell us about God, about ourselves, about good and evil!'”
Tools to help people’s thinking
Pierrick’s journey is an unusual one, as are those of Arnaud and Cyrille. But it clearly shows that the Bible has an impact in prisons and emphasises the need to provide materials which help people to tackle it and to feel supported. However, it’s important not to overlook another aspect of work in prisons, one which is more common: organised groups with structured ways of operating. Working on a one-to-one basis is on a different scale, but should not be neglected.
“A well-designed biblical booklet could form the basis for making contact with and talking to a chaplain,” Mr Leclair emphasises. “And themes like justice, truth, forgiveness and freedom, which are very relevant in a prison setting, are also key themes in the Bible. So a booklet like this could also be of interest to anybody who wants to think about issues of forgiveness, freedom and justice in their own lives, whether or not they have any links with prison life.”