From criminal to chaplain: Larry tells his story
HE’S a chaplain at Bristol Prison – but Larry Harvey was once behind bars himself.
The 56-year-old, from Coalpit Heath, is the only former prisoner to have attained this position. The extraordinary story of how he got there is now the subject of a book written by Larry and author Hilary Field.
Born a Romany Gypsy, Larry says he grew up feeling like an outsider in his community. He was bullied at school from the age of five and his childhood naughtiness grew into more serious behaviour – taking drugs, stealing, fighting.
As a father to five children, living with his partner Sue, he was drinking 18 pints a night and still getting into fights. Over time he racked up 27 convictions, going from nights in Bristol’s police cells, to a young offenders’ institution where he was beaten up. But even that didn’t change him. Finally, he served a sentence in Bristol Prison.
Then Larry’s eldest daughter Joanne, 18, went into hospital for a minor operation on her elbow and stopped breathing. Doctors found that she had a very rare condition. At the top of her spine, a piece of bone called the odontoid peg was pushing into her brainstem and killing her. The neurological department was then based at Frenchay, and only one surgeon was prepared to operate because of the risks. Joanna underwent several pioneering operations on her brain, each lasting many hours, and during one of them she stopped breathing again. She was given a 50:50 chance of survival.
Larry was distraught, and ran to Frenchay Hospital chapel, throwing himself on the floor and begging God to save her.
He said: “When I was faced with the strong possibility of Joanne not making it, I wanted to take her place and for God to take me instead.”
Larry said an amazing feeling of peace came over him and he knew his daughter would live. He regards what happened to him in the chapel as a miracle, because his daughter fully recovered.
Larry and Sue became committed Christians and Larry volunteered at the then young offenders’ institution in Pucklechurch for four years.
He then trained as a chaplain at Bristol’s Trinity College, despite being dyslexic and having rarely been to school. He got a certificate in theology, which enabled him to be ordained in the Community Church.
After working part time at the young offenders’ chaplaincy, he was given a full-time chaplain’s role at Bristol Prison.
Larry says he is the only former prisoner who is allowed to work in a prison in the UK with a full set of keys.
He said: “The best thing about being a Chaplain is helping men change their lives from criminal activity to changing their lives around full circle and leaving a life of crime behind them.
“There is good and bad in everyone and for me, it was leaving behind organised crime and violence. I came from a travelling background but not all gypsies and travellers are like I was.”
Sue and Larry are extremely grateful to the neurological team, now based at Southmead Hospital.
Larry’s book, From Menace to Miracle, will raise funds to support the Southmead Hospital Charity and he asks people to buy direct from him via firstname.lastname@example.org.
All profits will be donated.