Norwich writer talks about life in prison and ministry
In February ordained minister, former prisoner and writer Mark Humphries, who lives in East Norwich, was invited to address a reception at the House of Lords. Coinciding with the 12-month anniversary of Mark’s release from prison, it was a fitting end to a year of remarkable opportunity. Jenny Seal reports.
Mark Humphries seems to fit more into life than most. In his 51 years he has trained as a chef, been ordained as a minister, set up a small enterprise selling vegetable boxes and served two terms in prison as part of a life sentence.
Mark, a well-built man with a soft Welsh accent and down-to-earth manner, tells his story openly with a sense of awe and plenty of superlatives. He describes the last twelve months as “a massive year”.
Making the Most of Life after Prison
Since being released from his second term in prison in February 2018, Mark has started work for an educational TV production company. He has also become a newspaper columnist in the Bury Free Press, begun preaching again, developed a blog, continued his studies with the Open University, turned an award-winning piece of writing into a novel and been invited to sit on an advisory panel for the Prison Education Trust.
On Tuesday, February 5, he addressed a reception at the House of Lords talking about the importance of education in prison.
Some of this rapid success he attributes to Val Dodsworth, “a massive friend, influence, supporter and mentor.” Since leaving prison, Mark has been living in accommodation in Norwich owned by the Christian homeless charity House of Genesis.
Val, the founder of the charity, has become a close friend, introducing him to people and opening doors for him. Mark said: “Had it not been for Val I think I might be in a totally different place.”
This is no doubt true, but it is Mark’s openness, positivity, humility, talent and hard work that enable him to make the most of the opportunities he is given.
A Life Sentence
Mark was already a chef and a pastor when he committed the 13 incidences of arson that led to him being given a life sentence. He was 25 and had undiagnosed bi-polar disorder. Thankfully no one was hurt in the fires.
“I guess it happened very abruptly,” he said. “It went from the real high time of enjoying everything; being Rev Mark Humphries, Pastor of Eastside Christian Fellowship as it was at the time, to nothing. To not actually caring about my faith, not actually caring about my life, not actually caring about going to work.
“And so, I set the fires. And then a month or two months later I walked into the police station and handed myself in. There was a realization, ‘actually, Mark, what have you done?’”
He served 10 years including three years in a therapeutic facility, “a wonderful prison called HMP Grendon”. He came out in 2003, settling in Norfolk where, with his partner of the time, he rented a smallholding, growing and delivering vegetables and tending pigs.
The relationship ended, and in 2014 Mark got into an aggressive confrontation for which he was recalled to prison. “The World Cup had just been on and it was a stupid, boy argument. We were really vociferous and shouting,” he admits. “Because we were in an approved premises at a probation hostel it didn’t go down too well.” He ended up in HMP Wayland for four more years.
“Even though I say I was annoyed about the recall, I think it was actually a good thing,” he said. “It allowed me time and space to repair what I’d left undone when I came out of prison in 2003.”
When he talks about his time in prison it is always in positive terms. “It’s an amazing place prison,” he says. “I got to know myself so deeply that it was life changing. In fact, it changed my whole outlook on life and faith.”
Mark's Life of Faith
Mark became a Christian when he was 14 at a summer camp on a beach in South Wales. As a teenager he was part of a strong youth group in a charismatic church.
After leaving school he trained as a chef and moved to London where he got a job with Eastside Christian Fellowship feeding homeless people in a church-run makeshift hostel.
His pastor saw his potential and encouraged him to go into ministry. After some persuasion, Mark enrolled in a Distance Learning Bible College and received ordination.
His time in prison opened Mark up to other faith traditions. “I came in as a staunch Pentecostal, happy-clappy, very charismatic Christian,” he said, “to now understanding that this broad church of Christianity is massive.” Now as well as attending his local Anglican church he also worships at the Norwich Quaker Meeting House.
He describes prison as “a real powerful place for a Christian to be”. He continues: “I’ve had big, big bodybuilding men in tears in my cell because of whatever. But they wouldn’t show that to the rest of the community. In prison people get to know about your faith whether you preach it because you talk to them or whether you preach it because you show them.”
A Bright Future Forming New Sentences
It was in prison that he also discovered a love for writing that has now become his passion, and the reason he is a wholehearted supporter and campaigner for education in prison.
“When I went in in 1993, I understood a sentence had to have a capital letter and a full stop,” he said. “That was it - semi-colons, colons, commas and the rest of it, forget about it! At Bible College my work kept coming back with red grammar marks and punctuation marks in it, and I’m thinking ‘I have no idea what they mean’. So, I went to prison and thought ‘I’ve got to find out what they mean now’. So, I gained the GCSE in English which was fantastic.”
“And then I wrote a story because I was bored one night. I thought, ‘you know what, I actually like this’. Someone then told me about the Koestler Awards that run an arts prize every year in prison. The story won bronze in its draft form. And so that was it, I was off – I wanted to write now.”
Now he writes crime fiction novels, poems, blogs and is a newspaper columnist writing on behalf of charity Greener Growth. Mark is also studying for a Degree in English and Creative Writing with the Open University and has recently taken on the job of Broadcast Coordinator for Wayout TV, an educational channel streamed in prisons, where he has contributed to their course on writing.
“All prisoners need to learn up-to-date skills,” he said. “It’s great that you went in as a builder, but if you’ve been in prison 20 years as a builder, stuff has changed. So, let’s just keep refreshing those skills, renewing them with new ones.”
It is certainly an approach that is working well for Mark.