Women's Breakfast - Reflections from the Kahaila-Reflex prison project

Early on the morning of 18th March, I had the privilege of speaking to a brilliant group of women as part of a 'Women's Breakfast' series, put on by Steyning and District Churches Together.

It was a great time spent together, sharing a bit about the work we do with women whilst they are in prison and upon their release back into the community. I shared some facts and figures about our prison population; the number of people we have in prison, the economic cost of prison, and the social background and experiences of suffering many women in prison have been through. 

I finished by sharing some reflections of three lessons I have learned through the work we do:

1. SEE THE PERSON - NOT THE LABELS

This is why our tag line is 'Offenders Redefined'. So many people in prison have been peppered with labels; 'offender' - 'ex-offender' - 'violent' - 'drop out' - 'dangerous' - 'a risk'. Through our work I am consistently reminded of the importance of not allowing these labels to cloud our vision of each woman we are working with. Labels are descriptions of people's behaviour or current situation, but we should not slip into allowing those labels to define the person in front of us. There is a quote we use in one of our life skills sessions on dealing with rejection and mistakes which sums this up well;

"We all mistakes, have struggles and even regret things in our past. But you are not your mistakes, and you are not your struggles, and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future." - Steve Maraboli

This is an attitude we seek to embody in every aspect of our work at Kahaila Reflex.

2. CHANGE IS HARD. PEOPLE NEED CHANCES

Over the last year this message has been coming through particularly clearly, as a few of the women we worked with have been recalled back in to prison. Their return to prison has served as a reminder of just how difficult it is to change, particularly when you are trying to completely turn your life around in the face of a number of significant barriers. 

This is something we all know when it comes to ourselves; each one of us will have broken New Year's resolutions, had difficulty kicking a bad habit, or have avoided acting upon a decision we know it would be good for us to make, such as leaving a job we are not happy in, or pursuing a hobby we've always wanted to do but never managed to.

However, when it comes to other people, we can fall into the trap of having double standards and expecting them to change with immediate effect - not leaving enough room for grace, journeying and second chances. We can find ourselves thinking things like, 'Why don't they just change - how hard can it be?' or 'If they say they want to change then why don't they just do it?' - forgetting just how difficult it is to make (and stick to) changes in the easiest of circumstances; let alone when you have significant odds against you such as a criminal record, lack of support networks, mental health issues, and/or no stable housing or source of steady income.

It can be disheartening to see people return to prison, but it is just a reflection of the harsh reality of how hard it is for people to make lasting change. At Kahaila Reflex we are committed to journeying with people through the good times and the bad and so we try to always treat people with grace, giving them as many chances as they need to make changes in their lives that will help them move into the positive future that they deserve.

3. UBUNTU. IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE A CHILD

Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning "humanity to others;" it's the concept that 'I am what I am because of who we all are' (quote by Leymeh Gbowee). It's a concept that key figures such as Archbishop Desmond TuTu and Nelson Mandela have been big advocates for. Ubuntu is about seeking connection, community and mutual caring for all.

Hearing firsthand the life stories of a number women in our prisons, I have been saddened to hear again and again of the suffering they have endured, so often at the hands of people or systems in their lives they should have been able to rely on.

Too often these women have been written off as being 'lost causes' of our society - often from a very young age - and I'm increasingly convinced that this is something we should all take responsibility for in whatever way we can. Working with women in prison has taught the importance of adopting this kind of care for one another - recognising that we are all interconnected and should treat each other accordingly.

"...We think too often of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world." - Desmond TuTu