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Interview: Rob Rolls, director, Inside Belief

15 May 2020

‘Every prisoner, no matter what their crime, was someone’s pride and joy’

I’d been volunteering for three years in high-security jails up and down the country, and spent time with hundreds of longer-term and whole-life prisoners. I came to realise that, actually, above everything else, they needed hope — and, without that, they either faded away rapidly, or sadly, in some cases, decided to end their own lives.

As a Christian, I couldn’t just sit back and watch this; so, after an initial moment of revelation in a pub on All Saints’ Day last year, Inside Belief was founded.

It was probably one of the bravest things I’d ever done. I’d been working for a large charity in their older people’s team, earning a good salary, with a company car, but I’m far happier now doing what I feel called to do, living life on the edge a bit more.

I’m the only staff member at the moment, and I don’t get paid. We have a few other great volunteers acting as trustees (though we’re not even a registered charity, yet), or helping in other ways. Altogether, our monthly income is about £100 in total, but we’re hopeful of this growing over time — that’s the faith bit.

I generally work within the equality and diversity functions of prisons, but I have spent some time with the chaplaincy teams, and I’m happy to go anywhere. I’m about to begin a major piece of work looking at prison chaplaincy across the whole of the UK, which will hopefully bring me into contact with many more great prison staff.

I work in about six prisons at the moment, offering activities to mainly older and long-sentenced prisoners which bring a sense of purpose and hope. I also help prisons in their work with older men in general, particularly with those for whom society might want to “throw away the key”.

Prisoners often have to come to terms with the fact that this is going to be a big chunk of their life; that family will grow old, grow up, or die, and they won’t see that. For some, 40 years or more of their lived life is lost, post-offence. Some will live out their sentence as Category A prisoners in conditions less appropriate for a 70- or 80-year-old. I’m an introvert, but I don’t think I could cope with the prospect of never seeing a sunrise again, or smelling new-cut grass. Some prisoners don’t even have natural light for many hours a day.

Prisoners have to find something to give them a purpose, I think. Some come to faith. Some make things. In one prison, they make thousands of poppies for the British Legion. One man I know makes Christmas decorations for the whole prison.

The rise in historical sex-offence convictions means that more older people are coming into prisons now, perhaps getting their first prison sentence at 60, and then realising that they will die there. I know a prisoner in his nineties who will be 108 if he lives to see his first parole hearing. On some wings, when people line up to go to work, it’s a sea of grey hair. Prisons generally have an ageing population, I’d say.

I’ve piloted some work on respect and understanding, bringing younger and older prisoners together. The younger men can gain much wisdom about how to cope with their sentences from men who’ve done 30 or 40 years. During the workshop, the young guys were amazed to learn about rationing, or having to use a mangle to iron clothes. They looked at the older prisoners with new respect, and we saw behaviour improve, which was brilliant.

Most prisons aren’t really designed for older people, and, despite the best efforts of staff, there are too many things that just don’t work — from social care through to not being physically able to queue up for medications.

Our Grey Matters model of listening to older prisoners and gradually changing prisons found that, in one prison, older prisoners weren’t coming out on the wing because none of the chairs had arms, and they couldn’t easily get up from them without looking vulnerable — which is not a good look in prison. So we bought some high-backed chairs with arms, and some games, and now many more of our retired prisoners come out of their cells, which is a good thing if they’re locked up for 16 hours a day.

I gently interweaved some “fruits of the Spirit” with one group, and I mentioned a quality that I thought each prisoner showed. Afterwards, one of the guys said to me, “Thanks, Rob. No one has said anything nice about me in 20 years.”

It’s pretty much impossible to say how many prisoners suffer from dementia, because the sobering truth is that we often don’t spot it because of the pressure on staff and the nature of the condition. A recent study by Manchester University, though, gave a figure of seven per cent of the population, as opposed to one per cent outside prison.

Living conditions for older people in prison are the same as they are for everyone else, of course, but I know several very old prisoners confined to their hospital bed for 24 hours per day, without any outside visitors, or any outside stimulus, other than a TV if their behaviour warrants one. As an older or disabled prisoner, you’re very much at the mercy of carers or the staff themselves, and, given that under Chris Grayling [a former Justice Secretary] the whole system was shattered, and lost in the region of 40 per cent of its resources, the effects on prisoners have been little short of catastrophic.

Prisoners aren’t considered for early release on grounds of age: that still depends on things like their category, their probation reports, their offence, their engagement with the system and courses, their risk factors, and so on.

Prisoners have been in a really severe lockdown in this pandemic: 23 hours per day behind their cell door, let out for a phone call, a shower, and spaced-out exercise in small groups. I can’t imagine it being very good for one’s mental well-being, but it certainly protects people from the virus.

Inside Belief has had a “Ready, steady, stop” beginning; so I’ve been working on social media and building the foundations of it while I can’t go into prisons.

C. T. Studd is quoted as saying, “Some people want to live within the sound of church and chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.” For me, that sums it up: every prisoner, no matter what their crime, was someone’s pride and joy for a short while once, and they’re still uniquely valuable. The worse they are in society’s eyes, the more I want to work with them.

Different life experiences brought me to a realisation that we’ve all fallen short in different ways, and, as they say, every saint has a past and every sinner a future.

My childhood and growing up were generally good. I grew up in Yorkshire, and still live there now. Like many people, I went to church as a child, along with my parents, but my own faith became real throughout my teens, and I recall going to a gospel concert when I was about 15 and deciding that I wanted to be a part of this — whatever it was.

Daily prison life can be very dangerous, but, like most people working inside prisons, I don’t worry about it too much. But leaving my previous job was brave, I suppose. Also, facing a fast bowler can be a bit of a challenge, when I get to play cricket.

I try not to get angry, but perhaps the focus on lives of famous people who aren’t famous for anything important irritates me, as at the moment does people deliberately ignoring the rules.

Family time makes me happy, and when Leeds United or Yorkshire win. I started playing the piano when I was six, and I play for the church. I’ve been recording things online during the crisis. You can drift off on a piece of piano music.

But my favourite sound is, “Hi, Dad.”

One of the reasons I’m a Christian is because of hope: the hope of eternity, and the hope that following Christ brings.

I pray for friends and family like everyone else, but often for the whole-life and long-sentenced prisoners that I know and see on a daily basis. It seems like they’re forgotten, and, for me, that can never be right.

I think I’d like to be locked in a church with Frank Skinner. He could make me laugh, and I could teach him to play the piano, and we could then explore faith and escape if we got bored with one another.


Rob Rolls was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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