Prison shouldn’t make prisoners even worse
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