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Chaplain branded 'extreme' wins return to HMP Brixton

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A Christian volunteer chaplain who was controversially barred from HMP Brixton after unsubstantiated complaints has won his battle to return to the prison.

Pastor Paul Song volunteered at the prison for nearly 20 years but last year was told by the senior Muslim chaplain: “If you do turn up here without my prior permission, your keys will be confiscated, and you will be walked to the gate”.

A prison official later told Pastor Song that the decision to remove him as a volunteer chaplain was “permanent and with immediate effect”, following accusations from the Muslim chaplain that Pastor Song had called a prisoner a ‘terrorist’.

But following an independent review, the decision has been overturned and Pastor Song has restarted his chaplaincy work at the prison.


Excellent record

No complaints had been made about Pastor Song's ministry or his attitude towards prisoners. Pastor Song had been a volunteer chaplain at HMP Brixton for nearly 20 years. He had an excellent rapport with both prisoners and staff - with many former prisoners speaking glowingly about the support they've received from Pastor Song.

He was so trusted in his role that he had freedom to come and go from the prison as was necessary.

During his ministry at HMP Brixton, Pastor Song had used various Christian resources to run his courses, including Alpha and Just 10, and had always enjoyed the support of the previous senior chaplain, Reverend Philip Chadder. His courses had a capacity of 70 and were always oversubscribed.

But after Imam Mohamed was appointed as senior chaplain in 2015 things changed drastically.

Pastor Song explained, “Imam Mohamed’s discriminatory agenda was clear from the outset. He began scrutinising the material for each of our courses, commenting that the material was ‘too radical’, and that the Christian views expressed were ‘extreme’. He paid scant regard to the fact that the courses are mainstream Christian courses, used by churches throughout the world. He also said he wanted to ‘change the Christian domination’ within HMP Brixton.”

Imam Mohamed asked Pastor Song to stop running the courses, which he reluctantly agreed to do, but he continued to work with individual prisoners.


Pastor Song excluded

Not content with simply shutting down Pastor Song’s courses, in August 2017, Imam Mohamed sent him an email saying, “You do not have permission to enter the wings, nor do you have the permission to speak to any prisoners here at HMP Brixton. If you do turn up here without my prior permission, your keys will be confiscated, and you will be walked to the gate”.


Pastor Song recollects, “I was absolutely bemused. I had no prior indication that there was a problem. No details of any problem had been given, and so, maybe against my better judgement, I wanted to discuss the matter face-to-face as I was sure there had been a misunderstanding.” Accordingly, he met with Imam Mohamed, who told him he was no longer welcome at the prison and said he had no right to appeal against the decision.

It was not until he received a letter from Graham Horlock (Head of Reducing Re-offending at HMP Brixton) that Pastor Song learned of the accusations made against him. It was alleged that he had called a prisoner a ‘terrorist’ and that he had made reference to Isis. The letter went on to say that the decision to remove him as a volunteer chaplain was “permanent and with immediate effect.”

Commenting at the time on the allegations against him, Pastor Song said, “When speaking with prisoners, staff members or anyone else, I would never make offensive comments. The Bible exhorts believers to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, and to ‘let thy light shine before men’, and so being intentionally offensive would violate these commandments.”

He continued, “The whole reason I was serving at Brixton was because of my desire to bring the good news of the gospel to people, regardless of their religion or background. I believe that it has the power to transform the lives of all who believe, and so I would never do anything which may cause an individual to not want to hear the Christian message."


Over 40,000 people sign petition to reinstate Pastor Song

Pastor Song’s story was featured widely in news media. After he sought help from the Christian Legal Centre, a petition was started, asking the prison’s governor, David Bamford, to reinstate him. Over 40,000 people have since signed the petition.

Theresa Villiers MP submitted a written question to the Secretary of State for Justice, asking if he had discussed the matter with the prison governor and if he would “take steps to press for that pastor’s reinstatement”.


Pastor Song's legal action

With the assistance of the Christian Legal Centre, Pastor Song set about challenging the decision to dismiss him and made an application for the decision to be judicially reviewed.


In May this year, he agreed to stay the proceedings on the understanding that Her Majesty’s Prison Service carry out an independent review into the events surrounding his dismissal. The review would be conducted by Sara Pennington, Governor of HMP Elmley.

The meeting with Governor Pennington was very open and honest and Pastor Song was given every opportunity to state his case. At the conclusion of the meeting, Governor Pennington confirmed she would compile a report that summarised her findings.


A successful outcome

On 16th August 2018, Pastor Song met with David Bamford, the Governor of Brixton Prison, to discuss Governor Pennington’s report. Governor Bamford confirmed that the report concluded that “the decision to exclude Paul Song from HMP Brixton is not a reasonable one; due process was not followed in line with PSI42/2014 for the exclusion of an individual. I therefore recommend that Paul Song be reinstated as a volunteer chaplain at HMP Brixton”. Governor Bamford agreed that all of Pastor Song’s prison passes should be restored and that he should resume his duties as soon as practicable.

After the meeting Pastor Song said, “I am so pleased with the outcome and I have seen God at work. I did not expect them to allow me back, but why am I surprised, why did I not have greater faith? After all, the accusations against me were false. I didn’t say the things I was accused of and now I can get back in and help the prisoners.”

Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Legal Centre said:

"We are delighted that Pastor Song is once again able to bring his life-changing ministry to prisoners at Brixton Prison.

"We have worked extensively on many fronts to see Pastor Song reinstated – through legal support, detailed research and grassroots campaigning. It is wonderful to see justice done and prisoners once again benefiting from Paul’s ministry.

“Christian ministry in prisons has a long history, and its presence is essential for the rehabilitation and transformation of lives. Paul’s work has led to many prisoners in HMP Brixton turning their lives around, and we’re delighted that prisoners who are desperate for a new way of life will again be able to see Paul."

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