Prison shouldn’t make pris­on­ers even worse

The Daily Telegraph - - Obituaries - CHRISTO­PHER HOWSE

As­tory told by Car­di­nal Vin­cent Ni­chols, the Arch­bishop of West­min­ster, doesn’t sound all that hope­ful. He’d gone to say Mass at HM Prison Feltham, and the pris­oner read­ing the les­son, serv­ing a sen­tence for drug of­fences, had learnt to read prop­erly with the help of vol­un­teers and chap­lains.

Half of Bri­tain’s 85,000 pris­on­ers have got no fur­ther than a read­ing level of 11-year-olds. Their il­lit­er­acy is a big ob­sta­cle to get­ting a job on re­lease and avoid­ing re-of­fend­ing. But even with his new­found skill, this pris­oner from Feltham was drawn back into a gang on his re­lease and stabbed to death in a point­less feud.

Yet this story comes in a chap­ter called “Hope for pris­on­ers” in the Car­di­nal’s short new book Hope in Ac­tion. He is right to say that Je­sus de­manded that his fol­low­ers should visit those in prison. It is not a mat­ter of mol­ly­cod­dling pris­on­ers, who are there be­cause, as the Car­di­nal points out, “they have done wrong”. But they still have “the same ba­sic dig­nity as ev­ery other man, woman or child”.

What it means to be hu­man is ap­proached in an in­ter­est­ing way at the end of the book. Car­di­nal Ni­chols uses weep­ing as a way of de­tect­ing hu­man mo­tives. He met a Chris­tian woman in Ir­bil in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan who had fled the ter­ror­ists of the Is­lamic State. She re­mem­bered how her Mus­lim neigh­bours of many years had wept as she left.

We weep at de­par­ture and death. We weep tears of rage at things “cry­ing out to heaven for jus­tice”, en­tail­ing in­no­cent suf­fer­ing or abuse of a per­son’s in­tegrity or dig­nity, he sug­gests. We also have the re­mark­able ca­pac­ity of shed­ding tears of re­pen­tance, recog­nis­ing that we have done wrong. In the Chris­tian per­spec­tive this can be the be­gin­ning of a road of for­give­ness and new pos­si­bil­i­ties. With­out the hard recog­ni­tion of hav­ing done wrong, no hope of for­give­ness is avail­able.

Be­ing put in prison can cer­tainly in­di­cate hav­ing done wrong. It doesn’t al­ways. Good peo­ple are put in jail. Je­sus him­self was ar­rested and ex­e­cuted as a crim­i­nal. I cer­tainly wouldn’t like to be im­pris­oned, even in Bri­tain. I don’t like cock­roaches, which in­fest some pris­ons. And in 2015-16, there were 20,000 as­saults in Bri­tish pris­ons. I’m sorry to say I wouldn’t ex­pect to fare well with other pris­on­ers.

It seems to me that we are mak­ing pris­on­ers worse when they come out of prison than when they went in. It is grotesque that many be­come drug ad­dicts in jail. If we want to pro­tect so­ci­ety, pris­on­ers should be re­ha­bil­i­tated, even if this means longer sen­tences.

“It is noth­ing short of a tragedy,” the Car­di­nal writes, “how fre­quently pris­on­ers are de­prived of the op­por­tu­ni­ties to get a good ed­u­ca­tion and to learn skills sim­ply be­cause there is no one avail­able to un­lock their cell door and walk them down the cor­ri­dor to a class­room or work­shop.”

These op­por­tu­ni­ties in­clude pro­grammes of “restora­tive jus­tice”, which many prison chap­lains un­der­take, to en­able pris­on­ers to con­front the ef­fects of crime.

So what are we meant to do to make the fu­ture of pris­on­ers more hope­ful? Car­di­nal Ni­chols sug­gests that parishes should dis­cuss mak­ing ex-of­fend­ers wel­come at church and see­ing what jobs they might do. They are of­ten not con­sid­ered for va­can­cies, though that was not what their sen­tence spec­i­fied.

Parishes can also help pris­on­ers’ fam­i­lies. It can be­come im­pos­si­ble for women (usu­ally), with a fam­ily, to travel large dis­tances by pub­lic trans­port to visit pris­on­ers. To en­able them do so helps to pre­vent re-of­fend­ing and meets the stan­dard that Je­sus de­mands: “I was in prison and you came to me.”

Un­lock­ing at Wandsworth

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