In the early 1990’s, on one of my regular visits to Steve Ellison’s World Famous Movie Store in Manchester’s Corn Exchange, I was given a VHS cassette called From Crime To Christ. Apparently, Steve had a steady supply of these tapes, as newly-released prisoners from the nearby Strangeways Prison would drop into his shop and sell him the tapes for a few sheckles. Why he kept buying them is anyone’s guess, but I guess a freshly released violent con is not someone you turn down. In any case, Steve thought – rightly – that this would be right up my street.
From Crime To Christ is a basically produced documentary made by the Christian Television Association, which may or may not have been an actual thing, in 1989. It highlights the work of the assorted prison chaplains in Strangeways – Protestant, Catholic and ‘Church Army Evangelist’ – and more notably, presents us with a selection of former prisoners whose lives of repeat offending – mostly petty theft, but also including assault and attempted murder – were turned around by a sudden conversion to Christianity. Interestingly, neither of the surly looking chaps on the front cover appear in the actual video.
The 30 minute documentary does paint a bleak picture of prison life as a world of numbing routine and boredom, but fails to consider the idea that it might be the sheer desperation of such a life that pushes people to seek the crutch of the church. Religion is very good at scooping up the vulnerable and the addictive, replacing one escape from reality – drink, drugs, sex, or whatever – with another. It’s easy to see how someone at their lowest ebb in prison might suddenly cling to religion as a salvation.
Religious propaganda aside, 1980s video fans will doubtless enjoy the cheesy graphics and ominous library synth music. And as Christian hard-sells go, this is very British, and so far less offensive than the hardline ‘everything you like will send you to Hell’ films of their American counterparts during this era.