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Interview: Mim Skinner, co-founder of REfUSE, author

13 September 2019

‘I’ve seen more of God working in the prison chapel than in any church outside’

I was attending a community church group where a number of women attending were in a cycle of drug addiction, homelessness, and domestic violence. We were also supplying emergency housing at the community house where we lived through the charity Nightstop. The women needed help and support, but they were regularly being put in prison for petty crimes, and nothing was changing the cycle. When a job came up with a charity I admired, to work with these women inside, I jumped at the opportunity.

I was an art teacher and chaplaincy assistant. I used art, writing, and theatre to help people overcome mental-health and behavioural barriers and learn to express themselves. I also ran Bible-study groups, an Alpha course, and started a prison choir.

I wrote Jailbirds because the problems are too big and too systemic for us to fix. The amazing prison staff were like a team of mechanics working their socks off to fix a car — but, at the end of all that, the car you’re working on is old and inadequate, anyway. Even if there are a few women who make progress and learn new skills in prison, at the end of the day we still have a women’s prison system where one third of the women come through the care system, and half have committed a crime to support someone else’s drug habit — usually a partner’s.

The way the media write about vulnerable people makes me angry. Things aren’t going to change for women in the criminal justice system as long as public opinion isn’t on their side. I wanted to tell nuanced, positive, and sad stories about the realities of prison life, which would change people’s perception and be part of a conversation which leads to political change.

I still work with women who’ve left prison; so I’m lucky enough to get to see hopeful stories every week, as well as painful ones. Blacky, who wrote two chapters, very sadly died before the book was published; and I’ll never forget a mum who gave birth in prison and took her own life. But we still see people in recovery at our church group. Two women are now writing books, and I’ve been lucky enough to help those along.

We need a massive systemic change. But, for now, I’d make women’s provision mandatory as part of the new probation reforms, introduce more community sentencing, and make sure that judges had to take into account the fate of children before imprisoning a parent.

I run a women’s support group for the charity Handcrafted. We have referrals from probation services, hostels, local mental-health services, and drug-support services to bring people into a supportive community and teach new skills through arts, cooking, and woodwork. We can provide supported housing through our tenancy scheme. We have a training kitchen at our community café REfUSE, and I run an arts group to get women together doing something positive.

The hardest thing is when you put so much energy into a person, and they relapse. We love sharing a glory story, but the truth is, in this work, we just as often have relapses and disappointment.

When you hear about addiction and homelessness, it’s often a misery memoir; but the surprise is that people dealing with these problems are still funny, outrageous, kind, thoughtful, and ridiculous. Among the worst circumstances, you’ll often find optimism and laughter.

No one is too far gone to turn things around, even when you think it’s unlikely. We see so much hope and transformation in the worst circumstances.

I had some training with the prison in security, and some teacher training, but, like any pastoral job, you can’t really be prepared. I felt a firm sense of calling towards working in prisons, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t constantly learning what that means while you’re there.

Christians often uses the phrase: “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” but that’s totally nonsense. Many women in prison have been through much more than they can handle. One third of the prison population have attempted suicide at some point, and to encounter that pain and to feel totally overwhelmed and shocked by things you see is appropriate. It doesn’t mean you’re doing things wrong.

When it got too much for me, the charity supported me with counselling. I was also very supported by the community house I lived in throughout my time working in prison, and we were able to pray for the place and the people every day during our morning prayers.

I’ve seen more of God working in the prison chapel than in any church outside. Because there’s a powerful honesty in prisons about our need of God, no one is pretending that life is rosy and we’ve all got it sorted. Faith in God is most often expressed in the language of hope — hope that drug recovery is possible; hope that someone can let go of a hurt that’s been caused, and forgive; hope that we’re loved and lovable. God provides a framework in which hope is possible.

I helped to start REfUSE in 2015, alongside my best friend Nikki. We were hosting big meals at our community house, and taking food out of bins to put on the table. We were passionate about the implications of this terrible waste on climate change, and also about how food brings people into community.

When we started, we just ran pop-up meals in local community centres. Three years later, we have a warehouse collecting between a tonne and half-a-tonne of in-date food a week from wholesalers, manufacturers, and supermarkets, that would otherwise have gone in the bin. We have a 50-seat café-restaurant where all the food is “pay as you feel”, because we believe you can’t just measure value in money, and that everyone has something of value to give, even if that has gone unrecognised by society.

We’re run by volunteers from all walks of life, and we support one another in journeys with mental health, addiction, and social isolation — along with our brilliant partners who train, support, house, and refer. Handcrafted is going to be running a training kitchen on site, starting next month, where people can gain skills; and, though our private catering, we offer work to people with barriers to employment.

I’ve always been very aware of God; so I don’t remember a “first experience”. I used to wish I had an exciting single-point testimony, but now I recognise that those narratives are rarely representative of the journey of faith. Also, what a huge blessing it is to have always felt created and loved by someone bigger than the world.

My faith is what motivates me. It’s the point of justice that makes me constantly aware that we live in an unjust world, and makes me passionate to be one of the many voices fighting for change. As I’ve grown older and seen more of what it looks like when we don’t confine God to our practices and structures, I’ve become less and less sure that the Church is playing the role it needs to.

I’ve rarely met people on the margins — whether that’s women in prison, or the LGBT community — who feel completely welcome at church, and it is those people who we should be listening to. They are a powerful prophetic voice to the Established Church. So, though my faith has been increasingly central to my life, it’s also become far less rigid.

I love the first five beats of the song “Never Too Much” by Luther Vandross. It is a favourite, and was the first dance at my wedding.

My wonderful sisters make me happy.

Coping with the deaths of both my parents and carrying on with my job and ministry over the past few months has taken more courage than I knew I had. I was sleeping at the hospital the night before I went to the publishers to negotiate the rights deal with BBC Studios for a drama series and saw the first copies.

All the brilliant grass-roots activists I know working their socks off for their local communities give me hope for the future.

I pray for the women I work with a lot, whether that’s about drug addiction, finding secure housing, or freedom from violence. When I’m in a better mood, I pray for radical social, economic, and political transformation.

If I was locked in a church with someone for a few hours, I think I’d go for some sort of combination of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Shane Claiborne [Back Page Interview, 19 July].

Mim Skinner was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Jailbirds is published by Orion at £16.99 (CT Bookshop, £ £15.30).

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