Joanne O’Connor is the CEO of Junction 42, a Christian charity that works in prisons and communities across north-east England and central Scotland, supporting people throughout the journey of custody and rehabilitation


Joanne O’Connor is not from Newcastle, although her accent is now tinged with the Geordie twang. She was in fact born in Northern Ireland.

“As a teenager I really wanted to leave Northern Ireland and experience something bigger. So I prayed: ‘God, if you are real, I promise, I’ll be good (because I thought it was all about being good) – please help me get good grades.’ And then I got higher than was even predicted. I went off to Newcastle University to study Psychology. I shared a flat with a Christian girl; I really came to faith through seeing her passion.”

After conversion, Joanne threw herself into mission at university. It was a Youth for Christ worker who suggested she go into prisons. “He asked me to share my story as part of a Sunday service in a prison. I am not a public speaker, but I just shared my journey of how real God was, and what that looked like. At the end of it, they all got up and gave a round of applause. I couldn’t believe it. I suddenly became intrigued by a world that I knew nothing about. 

“I spent my last two years at Newcastle University using my student loans to fund my work in prison. I did my dissertation on coping strategies for prisoners, which enabled me to go into prison three times a week.”

When Joanne graduated, she was offered a role with the north-east arm of Youth for Christ. They pioneered a prison ministry that became national, focusing on young people in prisons, but, as the government changed its policies and fewer young people were incarcerated, prisons in the north-east become adult-only. 

They talked about how their whole lives were about living in a supernatural place because of the discipline of prayer and fasting

“Those prisons were absolutely desperate for us to work with them. So we started Junction 42 in 2012. We have gone from a staff of five to 30 in ten years.

“Hundreds and hundreds of people have come to God and responded to the gospel in prison. But in the early years, I had only seen about three ex-offenders established in their local church.”

Joanne questioned if there was something wrong with their conversion, or if something was wrong with the Church. “We started to understand what it was to embrace people’s culture and how to let them express their faith in their way. Long story short, we created community groups in prison, which work in the same way people might have a cell group. We got the men to lead Alpha; we had no resources, but that first group went from six men to 60.

pp7_Jan2023_Profile_Joanne (centre) as a student

Joanne (centre) as a student

The impact of prayer and fasting

At the beginning of each year Junction 42 does a 21-day fast. “We started about five years ago. I’d been leading the Christian ministry for nearly 15 years before a couple talked to me about prolonged fasting. I said: ‘I thought you’d die if you didn’t eat for more than three days.’ They responded with a question for me: ‘You’ve never let your spirit overcome your flesh?’ I thought: ‘Not when you put it like that.’

“They talked about how their whole lives were about living in a supernatural place because of the discipline of prayer and fasting. It is something that I am now so in love with. I know it’s a grace of God thing, because there’s no way I can miss a meal without getting hunger pangs.

In fasting I think my confidence in God increased and I became more aware of my frailty and weakness. One of the first things I noticed is that when we fast, we have time for everything.” Joanne believes that prayer and fasting made Junction 42 ready for what was to come.

Expansion in COVID

“During COVID, we saw the miraculous. Before COVID, we were a regional charity with about 25 employees, working in seven different prisons, running community groups. We were in all the prisons that we wanted to be in, doing our stuff. 

“Then COVID hit, and we were adamant we were not shutting down. We got ourselves signed off as key workers. There was a supernatural excitement that this was a moment God had for us. We went from a regional charity to national charity because we used our expertise to create a creative curriculum that men and women could use in the cells.”

Until quite recently the men and women in prison had to be in their cells 23.5 hours a day. Junction 42 developed a creative engagement curriculum, working with the national prison chaplaincy. 

“We created Stories of Hope packs. In one pack there would be everything someone would need to worship – a worship CD, a prayer journal, a testimony and a Word for the Day [devotional] from UCB and a creative activity.

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Joanne with boxes of Gideon bibles to go into the prisons

“There are between 64,000 and 74,000 people in prison at any one time. We send out 20,000 packs every three months. So we’re reaching a quarter of the prison population. Alongside the packs, we produce media services to go on prison cell TVs that include music, testimonies and the word. These have now become a mainstream provision in the prison service; we’re reaching 94 per cent of prisons in England and Wales and 100 per cent in Scotland. 

God told me: ‘I have called you to this, and you’re an important part of it, so don’t feel insecure. But I’ve got this.’

“The guy who heads up our Connect network, which is our church planting movement, was a prisoner himself. His mum was murdered by his dad when he was eleven. His dad went to prison, and then he became a heroin addict, a thief and a criminal. But when he was in Durham prison, he met someone who simply said: ‘God can get you off heroin.’

In his prison cell, he called out to God and got totally delivered off heroin. He has never touched drugs again. He adopted his drug-addicted niece from birth, is now married and has his own kids. Everything has been restored in his life.” 

Letting go

Very early on, Joanne had to learn that the prison ministry of Junction 42 was not her work or her responsibility, recognising that: “otherwise you get burned out or you try to rescue people. I really learned this when I had my first child and went on maternity leave. I was actually devastated when I found out it was pregnant because, in my head, it was me and the Lord. I was prepared to sacrifice having kids, because I was fulfilling all my dreams.

“It was an added bonus that I got a husband. I had prayed: ‘God, I do not want to get married; a husband will just interfere with this relationship between me and you.” 

God took Joanne through a process where she understood that children were a gift from the Lord, and Junction 42 wasn’t her ministry. 

“Growth always happens when I let go. The community groups that I talked about really grew whenever I was on maternity leave! Everything flourished, and God told me: ‘I have called you to this, and you’re an important part of it, so don’t feel insecure. But I’ve got this.’”


While everything was flourishing with Junction 42, Joanne’s family was hit with one trauma after another. “My husband got struck down by a really rare illness that was only found in India. My kids ended up having weird things happen to them. One daughter had such severe vertigo she had to use a Zimmer frame for two years. My other daughter’s eye went into the back of her head and they thought she had a brain tumour. One day I had to visit them both in hospital in different wards. For a period it felt we were dealing with a new trauma each day. 

My husband was in a coma, but offenders were getting saved

“Financially everything started falling apart for us; because of my husband’s illness he couldn’t work. So my husband was in a coma, but offenders were getting saved. That is when I learned what God was doing with the prisoners was a move from him; I did not own it. God can use anyone. You learn to facilitate his presence, you learn to make room for him, you learn to be out of control and feel out of control of everything. And you learn to live beyond your limits. 

“God often calls us in the supernatural place beyond what we can manage, and the only way to manage that is by letting him do it. There’s nothing special or unique about me. All I did was say yes to Jesus.” 

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