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Transcript Episode 30: She Matters: Tracy Sickel of Imago Dei shares her passion for women in the prison system 

Listen to this episode here

 

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Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted Podcast.  This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity, and purpose.

I’m your host, Catherine Cowell.

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Catherine: I’m delighted to be joined for this episode of the podcast by Tracy Sickel. Thank you so much Tracy for joining us.

Tracy: Thank you very much for having me today

C: So we are recording at New Wine, Tracy and I met yesterday, and it really looked like this might be a good conversation to have. So because we are recording at New Wine, I don’t think that our sound is going to be entirely without interruption! So we’re expecting potentially to be rain, could be wind battering the building, definitely music and worship practice; but welcome Tracy. Would you like to just introduce yourself briefly?

T: Yes, so I’m Tracy Sickel, I’m a free-church prison chaplain, and I’m also the CEO of Imago Dei, which is an organisation that works with women in the criminal justice system, in prison and outside of prison.

C: As I was walking past your stand, it was the thing that said “She Matters” that really touched me. I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about what that means to you in the context of what you’re doing?

T: The ‘She Matters’ shop that we have, the ‘She Matters’ community work that we have, was all born out of, basically, covid. We were all struggling with being at home, being separated from family, loved ones, all struggling with being indoors. I am a prison chaplain but I was going into prisons as a key worker, but the only thing I was able to do was to talk to the ladies through the crack in the door during covid. They were literally in their rooms for 23.5 hours a day. We thought we had it tough outside. For me, what we did then was we launched a campaign to say #shematters That went across all of our social media platforms, because those ladies, despite what they’ve done to get where they are, they matter. So we came up with the strapline about whatever she’s done, wherever she’s been, whether she’s a mum, whether she’s a wife, daughter, sister, auntie, she matters. It’s really to raise awareness of women caught up in the criminal justice [system] that oftentimes are forgotten, people think that they deserve to be there, but my experience has always been that behind every situation, ever person, there’s always a set of circumstances. So what we wanted to do was highlight and raise awareness of those women and just help people to understand that people within the criminal justice system do matter. We are a specifically women organisation, so we coined the phrase, #shematters That’s where it was all born from, and everything else has grown out of that.

C: Just listening to you, I can really hear the passion that you have for the women that you are ministering too. I wonder if you could take us back to, where did that story start for you?

T: I didn’t have the best upbringing in life and left school when I was 15, I hardly ever went to school. I had 23 different jobs over the years, I had twin daughters, I had some time out childminding. 23 jobs later, I was in a role in a Christian organisation and I really thought that’s where the Lord wanted me to be. Life was happy, I was in a role that I was content in, and then a man came into our church, he ran the service as though he was running a service in a prison. The Lord laid on my heart a real passion and a hunger, really, for knowing more about prison ministry and wanting to get alongside people caught up in prison. Because if it hadn’t have been for one of my youth leaders when I was 15, going along to youthclub and having people invest in me, I think because I’d had a troubled childhood, I could quite easily have been a lady in prison. So the Lord just laid it on my heart, so after 5 years of being in a particular role, that I thought I’d enjoyed, I began to realise that God actually had a calling on my life to get involved in prison. Took about a year, for me to work that one out and to be obedient to that, and eventually that same guy that came to church, he asked me if I’d work for him. I originally had contacted him and asked if he had any volunteer opportunities. Eventually, after volunteering for him for about a year, he asked me if I’d go and work full time with him. Which I did, my previous employer gave me his blessing, he knew, he could see the hunger and what God was doing in my life. So I started to work as a prison chaplain in 2010. 13 years later I’m still doing that; I’m a free church prison chaplain. 5 years down the line into that, I realised that having worked in both mens and womens prisons, the system was pretty much set up purely for men. Men make up 96% of the prison population, but those 4% of women are often overlooked. So the Lord laid it on my heart to minister to the 4%, and to set up an organisation, so that’s when Imago Dei was birthed. It came out of that hunger and passion listening to someone coming to my church and inspire me. I look back now and I could easily have been one of those women that I minister to in prison if it hadn’t have been for the grace of God, but the love and persistence of being loved into the Kingdom by youthleaders.

C: So what was it that those youth leaders were doing, and what was God doing through them, that took you from being at risk of being in prison yourself, to being stable enough to being able to hold down a job for 5 years?

T: Just loving. Basically just consistency. Just people who would accept me for who I was, with all of my problems, and just love me into the Kingdom. Acceptance, love, grace. I think they saw something in me that maybe I hadn’t seen in myself or that nobody else had seen. I felt loved and valued. I never received that in the family unit, so to be able to get that from somebody – I wanted to go back each week, I enjoyed going back, and just that consistency. And obviously the Lord – I became a Christian at the age of 15 and got baptised. I eventually moved in with my youth leaders when I got thrown out of home, actually. So just consistent. Always there, always praying for me, and they drew the gold out in me that I wasn’t seeing in myself. That’s part of my passion, that many of the women don’t know their value, don’t know their worth, they’ve never been told they’re loved. That was my experience. I’m able to turn that into a positive and make sure that people now know, in that same situation, that there is hope. Hope for them, and hope for their futures.

C: They really put their money where their mouth is, didn’t they?

T: They sure did, absolutely

C: It’s amazing what that consistently accepting you and believing that there was good in you did

T: We’re still in touch now. They’re getting on a bit now, I’ve brought my children up, they’re kind of grandparents to my children, and it’s lovely that we’re still able to stay in touch. They’ve very much been an encouragement to me over the years and remain to this day.

 

C: So can you remember the first time that you walked into a prison?

T: Yes, I can! It was quite scary. It was actually Brixton prison, in London, with my boss, and I went in to help with a bible study. With a load of men, obviously, being a men’s prison. I was actually quite surprised. I was thinking I’d feel quite intimidated or vulnerable, but they were just amazing people, whether they were looking at me as a sister-figure or whatever, but very respectful. “Mind your language, there’s a lady present.” Very caring. I had no need to feel humiliated or vulnerable or any of those things, because they were just a really lovely bunch of people. I think the more you go in, and I see this oftentimes now when I’m working, if you take someone in, it becomes contagious. The more you go in, the more you want to go in. You get that bug. So that was 14 years ago now.

C: What were some of the first moments of you really seeing God at work in prison?

T: Part of my training was, as I say, in Brixton, and then worked in Holloway, which is now closed. I used to work in Holloway. In those days they used to categorise people and put them in different places within the prison, depending upon their crime. There was a ‘lifer’ unit, so I did all of my training on the lifer unit. All of the people there were there because they’d either taken 1 or 2 people’s lives. That was where I did my training. And just seeing the people, some of the nicest people who were just misunderstood or not been listened to, who were just there because of circumstances that were sometimes out of their control. And just listening to some of the brokenness. I think one of my fondest memories is seeing a woman come around the corner, she was a muslim lady wearing the full hijab, she came around the corner and we nearly bumped into each other and eventually, I’m still working with her now, 12 years later, she’s given her life to the Lord. She’s converted to Christianity through all of that, she was a muslim that became a muslim because of her husband, and the pressures of that, ended up in prison. Being able to journey with her over the last 13 years has been really special. She’s now coming up to release, parole. Being able to still walk that journey with her and support her through the ups and downs, the bereavements, the joys and becoming a Christian. We lost contact for a few years, she went off to a different prison to do a course, but she’s now back in one of the prison that I go to. I visit 3 women’s prisons a week. Seeing her every week and the journey she’s been on is real fond memories. Just seeing how God works in that brokenness.

C: What would she say are some of the things that have changed for her as a result of her encounter with God?

T: Again, I think it’s consistency, it’s people who are prepared to listen to her, people who will take her as she comes and work with her, at her pace, not try and put anything on her. Chaplaincy are there for people of all faiths and no faiths, but we’re consistent. Every week I’ve got the opportunity to – despite whatever else I’ve got going on, if I’ve got courses going on, I will still try and go and look in on her. It can be the highlight of someone’s week, seeing a chaplain. It’s that consistent love, consistent prayer, being able to support them through whatever. If they’re having a bad week, being able to pray for them. If they’re having a fun week, and they don’t want to be prayed for that week, that’s fine, it’s just showing up, listening to them, showing them that respect and love. I think that’s what her biggest thing would be, would be just to say that she feels validated. And cared for and listened to. She’s not just a number, she’s a lady with hope. She’d love to come to our house. We’re aiming to open a house at the end of the year, she’s always saying to me “when is it going to open?”, so she could be potentially one of the first ladies into our house and that’s quite exciting.

C: Tell us about your house

T: We are planning on opening a property in the Kent area, hopefully by the end of this year, early next year. It’ll be a property where we have 6 ladies coming to live with us from the open women’s prison, basically as a stepping stone to getting accommodation and employment of their own. We’ve worked for the last 4 years looking at various different projects, we’ve been in touch with all of the different prisons, we’ve looked at all of the eligibility criteria, we’ve spoken to the women and asked them what they would want in a house. We’ve done surveys, we’ve spoken to the Minister of Justice. We’ve got some funding for it and we’re now fundraising to come up with the first year’s overheads and the first year’s running costs. We hope to launch that.

 

The GRACE stands for Growth, the G, a place where they continue to learn, continue to be invested in, they’ll get basic lifeskills. Many of them come from the care system and have got basic, very very basic, existence and skills. We want to do CV writing, budgeting, cooking, various basic things that some of us would take for granted. Many of them have never been parented well, so parenting classes, things like that. So it’s a place of growth, it’s a place of re-settlement, it’s not a forever home but as I say it’s a place where they can be invested in with a potential to move on, to resettle well, to get back into community and to be re-established.

The A is for Acceptance, we are a Christian home, a Christian organisation, but it is a place where anybody of any faith is welcome to come, to feel welcome, loved, cared for and accepted.

C is a place of comfort, it’s not just a hostel or a refuge, but it’s a place they can call home, where they are responsible, they feel responsible for it, they want to be there, it’s a place of comfort that I would happily stay in myself.

E is where they will Encounter. Hopefully encounter the love of God through the staff that we will have there and encounter God’s heart for them.

So GRACE House, we are looking to open it hopefully the end of this year!

C: Brilliant! 

 

So what was it that’s missing in the system that made you think, “actually, we need this”?

T: After working for 5 years and being in Holloway, I would leave Holloway on a Friday afternoon and quite often see women coming back on a Monday. It really struck my heart, “why are we locking people up, doing nothing with them, and expecting them to come out any different?” Oftentimes they don’t, they come out more traumatised, and they felt more guilty because of what’s happened with their family while they’ve been in prison, oftentimes they come out more criminalised because of who they’ve been rubbing shoulders with, it seems nonsense to me, or it seemed nonsense, that we were locking people up and doing nothing with those issues that had contributed to them coming to prison in the first place. So whenever I’d see them on induction, there’d be issues of unforgiveness, issues of loss, which maybe caused them to turn to drugs or alcohol; parenting – they’ve never been parented, they’ve come straight from the care system at the age of 18. Self worth is a huge thing, they’ve never been validated as I’ve said, they’ve never been told that they’re loved or precious. So we run a course that looks at that specifically. That’s why I started Imago Dei, purely because we’re locking people up and they’re not coming out any differently unless we invest time in them and help them to rehabilitate and get healed and whole whilst they’re in custody, so that when they come out they can be productive members of society, making better choices and living the hopes and the dreams that many of them have.

C: It sounds like, from everything you’ve been saying and from your own story, it sounds like it’s not that people go around maliciously doing evil and then ending up in prison, it sounds very much like what you’re saying is that there are always things that cause that in the first place.

T: Absolutely, family breakdown, poverty, having to put food on the table. They may have been separated from a husband or partner. Having to put food on the family for the children, tax evasion. Everybody within the prison system could easily get caught up in things that many of us in society could easily get caught up in. There’s a set of circumstances behind many of them. Sadly a lot of the circumstances behind a woman is a man, coercion, being used as a drug mule, pushed into things that maybe they haven’t wanted to be involved in, survival; all of those things contribute to women coming into the prison system. It could happen to any one of us, they’re absolutely lovely people, many of them. Some of the nicest people I’ve met are people in the prison system. They just need that opportunity to shine, that opportunity to be invested in. Like I was, be invested in, and taught a different way. We have generations of people, so in my courses I can have mums, aunties, sisters, grandparents, in the same prison all at the same time, and what I love about the parenting course as well is that gives us the opportunity to end generational mindsets. Give them a new way of thinking. Some people are born into that kind of lifestyle. So it’s, how do we change that? How do we change ideas and mindsets? I believe we can. I think the Lord can help us with that, and obviously everything we do, we do through the chaplaincy department. Being a chaplain there, I’m not allowed to proselytise, but I can support the women, encourage the women, and tell them when I get the opportunity that Jesus makes all the difference in their hearts, in their lives, should they put their trust in Him. many of them, they do try, they say, “well, I’ve tried everything else, why not give God a try? I’ve tried the drugs and the drink and the sex and everything else, but I’ll give it a go!” We do see women engaging in bible study and coming to service and quite often we do evening worship sessions as well, and they come along. It’s not just because they want to get out of their cell; sometimes it is, but there’s a real genuine hunger, they’ve got hope. That’s the difference, a lot of them. We take the hope in there. When I go in, my aim each day is just to bring hope to the people that I meet. With the chaplaincy team behind us, we’ve got the potential to change those lives. The Lord does that through us, so we’re grateful for those opportunities.

 

C: So you’ve called your ministry Imago Deo, which means Image of God.

T: Yeah

C: Really the thing that seems to be running through what you’re saying is – I’ve still got this picture from what you’ve said, of there being gold in people that you’re wanting to draw out. That sense of preciousness and worth that people are lacking. So tell us a bit about how you do that, you say you’ve got a course? What are the key things that you’re talking to people about, that you’re helping them to understand?

T: Yeah, our friendship course is called Flourish, that I wrote with a colleague based on what we were hearing within the prison and what we were seeing, which is a real lack of self confidence, self esteem, self respect. So our course is a 6 week course, it’s called Flourish because I think every one of us has got the potential to flourish, wherever we are, whatever we’ve done. The first two weeks we look at identity. So who am I? Who are you? What is it that makes you, you, and me, me? We look at value, we look a little bit at uniqueness, we look at comparison; basically helping the women to be confident and comfortable in their own skin. Realising that being unique is a good thing, being different is a good thing, but also helping them to see their self worth and self respect. As I say, many have never received that, they’ve never been taught that. That they’re loved, that they’re precious, so we remind them that they’re made in the image of God, they are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that they are beautiful. Despite the circumstances of where they’ve been, that they have great potential. The next two weeks we look at wholeness, we look at healthy relationships, we look at boundaries, self care, well being. To help the women to realise, we’ve done who they are, and we’ve done how they are. How are they feeling, how are their emotions, how are they helping to manage those emotions. With a view to helping them live that whole balanced lifestyle. The last two weeks we look at destiny. What is it that you’ve got inside you? How are you going to get that potential out? Each one of us has got the potential to live life, to make a difference, to flourish. So we ask them, “What are your dreams? What are your goals? How are you going to make that happen? What action plan can they put in place?” Not necessarily when they’re out, but what can they be doing while they’re in the prison setting to be the best version of themselves, to get on track to what they want to achieve as they leave? It’s a very positive course, it runs in all 3 prisons that we currently work in, we have a big takeup and a big long waiting list, because many of them have to do it as part of their sentence plan. So the prison have seen that it’s important, they have seen that the women do flourish as a result of having done it, but equally they know that there’s an issue with women having that low self esteem, having it knocked out of them if they’ve got trauma or abuse in their lifestyle previous to prison. So the prison, basically, the officers, the sentence board, say that they have to do that before they leave. They can also self-refer. Word of mouth is amazing. Some people do it and then they tell their friends that they need to do that course. We get some really good positive feedback from this course, it really does make a difference.

C: So what sort of things are people saying to you after they’ve been on the course?

T: We do a survey, we’ve come up with a survey, we ask the ladies to complete a survey once they’ve completed the course. Some of the comments we receive are very very positive. One lady here, I’m just reading out, she says,

“The course has helped me to focus on my self-identity and evaluate my options. I feel unique, and that’s a good thing. I’ve been told now that I have a much more positive and focussed approach to everything that I am facing. The course is amazing and should be compulsory for all to attend.” [20.30]

Another lady says,

“I’ve learnt that I am an individual and not to compare myself with others. I feel positive about my life and even my future.”

Finally the last one I read is,

“I am a special person with lots of potential and lots to give. I want to share what I have. I now look at myself in a new light and will not believe the lies that I’ve been told.”

We get lots of positive outcome and what I love about it is that we start the group off, maybe 10-12 ladies, they don’t know each other necessarily, but by the end of the course they’re all bigging each other up and encouraging each other and it’s lovely to see them all reach their potential together. We finish the last session by doing a collage, a mood board of where they’d like to be in the future. It’s such a rewarding session, they’re all future-focused, talking about life beyond prison and what they want it to look like and how they’re going to go about it. We love doing that course. It’s rewarding for us, but I really do believe it has the potential to change their lives. Helping them to know that they’re unique and special, and ‘captains of their own destiny’, if you like.

C: Which is incredible given the situation that they’re in, and the real battering of their self esteem and self worth that happens before prison, and inevitably becoming a number in the prison system is dehumanising, isn’t it?

T: Absolutely. Oftentimes they’re either their surname being yelled down a corridor, or on paperwork it’s just their number. So for us, they love to have us remember their names, to have us remember a name is so powerful, to each week remember their names and to call them by their names. Not just when we’re in the course, but as I wander the wings, it just means so much to them that someone has remembered that. Even that alone is giving them hope and placing value on them. Oftentimes the office is just doing a job, they don’t have time to build them up or encourage them. The relationships we’re able to form wandering around the prison, it’s really precious to be able to do that.

C: Yeah. I’m wondering if you have any stories to share of people who have come through your courses for whom things have really significantly changed?

T: Yeah, absolutely. Last year I was actually contacted through our website by a lady, she sent me an email, she said “hi, I don’t know if you remember me but I did my course with you 3 years ago in a particular prison.” Of course I did remember her and we arranged to meet up in town for a coffee, she actually didn’t live far from where our office was. We met up and we had a coffee. She was from the traveller community, when she was first in prison she couldn’t read, she couldn’t write, and she had very little hope. She came, she did a parenting course with us, we helped her to complete her book, we had someone working alongside her helping her to complete the book, do the writing for her, she learnt to read and write in prison, there’s a scheme where the prisoners can teach other prisoners how to write, and how to read. So she learned how to read and write. I worked with her for 7 years; as I say she left 3 years ago. But she contacted me. But before she left she moved to the open prison. She was going out and she was doing a floristry course, and NVQ in horticulture. It was lovely seeing her going out on day-release to be able to go out and get that qualification. But what happened subsequent to that was she came out, she started her own florist shop, she also did a course in beauty, so she’s now running a course in floristry out in the community, together with a beauty salon. She goes to church, she gave her life to the Lord while I was working with her within the prison system. Occasionally she’ll come to church with me on a Sunday and we can stand next to each other and worship together. But the most exciting thing is that when she contacted me she said, I want to learn to give back, I want to be able to give back because of what I received in that course. I now have her coming back into that same prison where she was a prisoner, as a free lady who has transformed her life, who is able to share with the women the amazing journey of transformation that she’s been on. Glorifying God in the process. So she’s able to sit there and say, “I was a prisoner where you are.” I can talk the stuff in prison, but she can hold an audience. The women just can’t believe it. They say, “what, you were here?” she says “yes, I sat in those chairs where you’re sitting, and I would be in the same houseblock you’re in, or the same wing that you’re in, and now I’ve turned my life around completely”. So when they’re doing the collages at the end, she’s able to sit there and say, “this is what I did on my collage”. 10 years later, almost, she’s totally made a difference, not just in her own life, and her family’s life, but in the life of the prisoners that she’s working with when she comes in with me. So there’s that success story from last year. And to be able to worship with her in church sometimes, that’s incredible as well. That’s an extra bonus on top.

C: That’s truly, truly amazing, isn’t it?

T: I’ve got several ladies with lived experience of prison who volunteer with us and come in and facilitate courses, and it’s just such a powerful thing to see, the redemptive nature of the Lord and how He’s turned lives around and how he’s able to use that, again, helping others. There’s a motto that I always say, people get fed up of me saying it, in prison but also in our charities, “God wastes nothing but uses everything.” I totally believe every one of those ladies has got the potential within them, when they grasp who they are and what they want to do with their life, they’ve got the potential to do that. That’s what we’re all about, helping them to feel loved, valued, know their worth, know their self respect and just invest in who they are. To keep going. So that’s what we do.

C: It’s a profoundly Jesus ministry, isn’t it? To be reaching out to people that society would not see as having value.

T: Absolutely, and it’s a real privilege for me to be able to do that and to take people in and oftentimes, as you say, they’re the forgotten people of society because a lot of people think that they deserve to be there. But people don’t realise the reasons that we’re there and that we all deserve a second chance. God is a God of second chances and more. So to be able to do that, it’s our privilege to be able to do that day in and day out.

C: And to take Jesus into those places.

T: Absolutely. Very dark places sometimes, but to be able to take the light. For us to have people praying for us is so important as well, we know that we’re up against dark things within the prison system, but we know that there’s an army of people that pray for us and support us. It’s a privilege to be able to walk those landings and take the Lord with us where we go. He goes before us.

C: That’s brilliant.

 

So if people wanted to know more about your ministry, to pray for you, to give or to get involved, how would they find out more, Tracey?

T: Absolutely. We have a website. We have several websites. Our main website if you go to www.idprisonministry.org.uk that links to our other websites; it’s also got on there all our social media handles and also our giving page as well. We have a newsletter that goes out every other month, and we have a prayer email that goes out twice a week asking people to pray for specific things. We would love all the support that we could get, yeah, thank you.

C: That’s brilliant, thank you ever so much for sharing your story. That’s been wonderful.

T: Thank you very much for having me

C: Thank you

T: Amazing, thank you.

 

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Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email lovedcalledgifted@gmail.com You can find a transcript of this podcast at lovedcalledgifted.com and that’s also the place to go if you’re interested in the Loved Called Gifted course or if you’d like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.

Thank you for listening.

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