Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Please confirm that you are happy to hear from The Church of Scotland:

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please visit the Privacy Policy on our website.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Service in Prison

Looking Back

Friday November 4

Looking Back: "I Was in Prison"

Published in November 1946



KRISTINE M. B. MILLER, Church of Scotland Press Agent, describes a visit to a Service in one of our Scottish prisons.

“PEOPLE do not usually queue up at a prison gate,” was my thought as, having arrived too early, I walked up and down waiting for the prison chaplain who was coming to take the Sunday afternoon service. I studied on the notice board the penalties for smuggling letters or other goods to the prisoners, examined the field of potatoes on one side, and the cornfield with poppies on the other. Then the chaplain arrived on his bicycle, the door in the great doorway opened, and we were admitted first to the gatehouse and then through the big iron gate into the prison yard.

I do not know what I expected to find inside the gate. Most people imagine prisons to be grim and gloomy places, but I was delighted to see a garden in the yard, grass and flower beds with bright marigolds flaunting their glowing colours in the breeze.

This prison is a model prison, modern, light and airy. You can see out of the windows of the cells, which are adequately furnished with bed, mattress, sheets and blankets, table and stool; and electric light is allowed until bedtime.

The women’s working quarters for laundry, sewing, mending and knitting stockings, are modern and well-equipped; and long-term prisoners on privileges meet occasionally in a pleasant room where there is opportunity for crafts, sewing, reading, etc.

The library is under the charge of the chaplain, with a library officer and three prisoners on the staff. The prisoners are allowed three books a week and requests for special books are met when possible.

They share in the service

I was taken to the women’s quarters where the women prisoners were lined up ready to go into the chapel under the direction of two women officers. The women prisoners were in uniform – brown dresses – short brown coats, thick brown woollen stockings and shoes; two Borstal girls were at the back of the line, in grey coats and blue dresses. As we waited the two girls played with a black kitten which had to be shooed back to the kitchens, when we moved into the chapel, a large, light pleasant building bright with flowers in vases on the Communion Table.

The women sit in a separate section of the chapel entered from the rear. The men prisoners sit in the body of the kirk with officers stationed at intervals among the congregation. And the organist and the choir (all prisoners) are on the minister’s left, facing the congregation.

As we entered the organist was playing. Then the choir softly sang their prelude – a great favourite with them – the old mission hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour” – beginning the service for what is probably the most unusual congregation in Scotland.

Every type is represented there, from University graduate to illiterate; young, old, short, tall, some of the faces showing obviously criminal types, some respectable-looking, elderly men who might have passed for pillars of the Kirk or of the community. But now they are all alike in their prison uniforms, bleached with many washings, except for one or two men still awaiting trial, who sat at the back and were conspicuous in their own clothing.

It must be difficult to minister to such a congregation, but the chaplain treats them as an ordinary congregation and gives them a service similar to that in his own church. But the service that Sunday in all its parts seemed particularly suited to the special needs of those men and women, from the opening paraphrase, “O God of Bethel,” with its appeal for guidance through the perplexing paths of life, through the prayers, Scripture readings, and the familiar hymns (“Jesus the very Thought of Thee” and “Fight the Good Fight.”) The congregation joined heartily in the singing. Time is allowed for choir practice and training.

The subject of the sermon was “Defeat” – and the importance of facing it rightly. The prisoners sat quietly throughout the service and listened intently.

The chaplain finds them appreciative and responsive, and there are many who continue in their gratitude for the help received during their prison days.

The closing hymn was “Abide with Me.” During the singing one of the women officers pressed an electric bell to let the officer in the women’s prison know that the service was over. The benediction was given and the choir sang “God who made the Earth – careth for me;” and it was with this thought that the line of women prisoners filed out of chapel, through the gates and passages, and each cell received again its occupant.

Looking Back menu

Previous: Five Buses to Sunday School