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I found freedom in a prison cell

Today (Saturday 20 October) is the final day of this year’s Prisons Week when prayers are said for anyone who has been affected by prison. The Prisons Week charity sends out literature to Christian communities and individuals inviting them to join together in prayer.

This year, the theme is Boldly Go. One of the prayers is for prisoners to ‘boldly go forward into new life’ through Jesus. JOHN FINNY is living proof that it is a prayer that can be answered, as he tells Sarah Olowofoyeku

I never got affirmation from my father, so I looked elsewhere for it

BETWEEN the ages of 12 and 19, John Finny spent a total of six years locked up. But today he enjoys what he describes as a new life of freedom with his wife and three sons. He is a part of a church community and goes into prisons to share a message of hope through music.

John was released from prison more than 25 years ago, but, before he received his physical release, he experienced spiritual freedom. It was a culmination of years of searching, as he explains:

‘Around the time before my last prison sentence, I always used to have parties at my flat. We’d take drugs and play cards, and we’d also talk about the meaning of life. God wasn’t mentioned, but we were trying to work it out for ourselves.

‘One night, I took my dogs out for a walk in the hills,’ he recalls. ‘I looked up at the sky and said: “Whoever you are, I need to know your truth. I know that there’s more to life than this.” I genuinely thought I was communicating with extraterrestrial beings. I didn’t know who God was. But I’m convinced that God heard my words as a prayer and honoured it.

‘When I was remanded into custody for my last crime, I remember being in that prison cell and for the first time recognising the Bible.

‘In prison, we used the Bible when we had run out of risla paper. So I’d used it before, but I’d never read it. There was something about it that night though. I opened it and read it, and it was as if it was talking to me.’

John believed that God was telling him to go to court and confess his crime.

‘That was scary,’ he says, ‘because at that point there was a chance I could have been charged with attempted murder, although I hadn’t been trying to kill anyone. I felt as though God was saying that the truth would set me free. But I knew I’d be going down for a long time, so I ripped my Bible up and threw it out the window.

‘There was still something drawing me to it though. So I asked for another one. But I felt as though God was saying the same thing, so I ripped it up again and threw it in the bin.

‘Then I asked for another Bible. This was over a few days so the prison chaplain must’ve thought I was a heavy smoker,’ he laughs. ‘I got my third Bible, and confessing still felt like the right thing to do. I knew that if I didn’t confess I could have got away with my role in the crime. Everybody involved was in a gang or dealing drugs, so no one wanted to speak in court – we usually sorted out our grievances among ourselves. But I felt God was saying that confession was the way I was going to be truly free.’

John went to court and told the truth. He was sentenced to six years in prison, but believes that this was a blessing in disguise.

‘I should have got 12 years at least,’ he explains. ‘I know that God influenced the heart of the judge I faced because he was known as a very harsh judge. I’d faced him a few times before but it was as if he didn’t recognise me this time. He gave me six years, of which I served four. But I was not a prisoner in a prison like I had been before, I was like a monk in a monastery.’

During John’s time in prison, he was able to learn more about the Christian faith and develop friendship and community with other prisoners who were Christians. He became a chapel orderly and helped to lead worship on the guitar given to him by a prison chaplain. John is especially grateful to the prison chaplains he spent time with at HMP Dartmoor. Although it was a particularly tough institution at the time, he found the support that he needed for his early days in the faith.

‘The chaplaincy team was awesome,’ he says. ‘They taught us how to meet together and create our own fellowship. They were always there for prisoners no matter what was going on. One of them became like a father figure to me, it was brilliant.’

John’s relationship with his real father had been a difficult one. He traces some of his problems growing up back to their early interactions. ‘My dad was an alcoholic,’ he says. ‘He came from a line of father figures who believed a father’s responsibility was to teach his son how to fight.

‘One day, when I was nine or ten, my dad came home from the pub, got me out of bed and dragged me into the garden. He was drunk. He knelt down and said, “Right son, hit me.”

‘Because of his alcoholism, he was verbally abusive towards me. I never got any affirmation or sense of identity from my father. So I looked elsewhere for it and I found it in my friends. At that age I gained a reputation for doing stupid stuff, such as throwing stones through windows, setting fire to cars, fighting and so on. My friends respected me and it made me feel like a somebody.’

John received his first custodial sentence when he was only 12 years old. ‘I was scared because I was so young. But once I’d got my initial introduction, it became another badge that I wore. Once you’d been into prison and survived, people knew about it and so nobody took the mickey.’

As John grew up, his crimes got more serious.

‘I had become addicted to that way of life,’ he admits. ‘I was burgling houses, committing grievous bodily harm, using guns, knives and axes. I was a really violent person. I was stealing and taking drugs. I’d mix cannabis, alcohol and amphetamines, and had no control. It was a really dark, chaotic time of life.’

From chaos to order, he found that his life had been transformed during that final prison sentence. ‘I had been a very angry man. And then my anger disappeared.

‘I also felt compelled to get in touch with as many people as I could to ask them to forgive me. I confessed to the police all the crimes that I hadn’t been caught for. I felt convicted to bring everything up. God was renewing my mind.’

John continued to experience transformation and healing when he was released from prison. He felt that God wanted him to move to London and join a specific church. In that church he was taken in by a family until he was able to set himself up properly – and it was in that home that he experienced what he describes as his ‘biggest miracle’.

‘I couldn’t believe it but the man of the house was a judge. It’s almost like God was, not showing off, but yeah, he was a little bit.

‘Being able to sit across the table from a judge and for him to see me, an ex-prisoner, as a brother, and for me to see him as a brother was amazing.’

Later, John met Helen and the couple fell in love. But there was a potential problem with Helen’s family.

‘Helen’s dad was a chief inspector in the police force, so I was nervous about meeting him. I slept in the spare room, where he was charging his police radios. When I woke up one morning, he was standing over my bed, all in uniform, with a cup of a tea. Straight away I was reminded of the last time I’d been woken up by a policeman – he had put me in handcuffs. I used to have a lot of hate for authorities but through those two events, God brought about some healing.’

Today, John is a self-employed landscape gardener running the business that he started some years after being released from prison. Because of his criminal record, he found it hard to find an employer who would take him on, but now he sees gardening as an opportunity to share his Christian faith.

‘I get to meet and talk to all sorts of people about God, as well as enjoying the work,’ he says. ‘Though I got into it because I couldn’t find work elsewhere, I do feel that God called me into it.’

Through his work as a landscape gardener, John has had the opportunity to talk to people about God, the difference he has made to his life and the difference he believes God can make to theirs – but he also shares his faith in familiar surroundings.

‘I go back into prisons with a band and use music to share a message that is straight from the Bible,’ he explains. ‘Music is a universal language, and the band is made up of Christians who are ex-offenders and ex-addicts, so we have the same background as some of our audiences. We are creative with song choices, doing covers of songs with double meanings or references to God’s character. Ultimately I want to tell people that they have a future and a hope and that life can be different.’

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