On rounds with one of the admirable Anglican Chaplains, I met a prisoner who, high on the unpredictable drug Spice, had believed his arm was bendable and broke the bones in his own forearm. Another thought he had two grandchildren but as he was estranged from his family, had never met them. Many others were on their third or fourth term inside, unable to manage life outside the closely managed environment of the prison where most decisions are taken away and your life is monitored, controlled at every point. There’s no getting away from it: prison is a brutal and brutalising place. It demeans people, takes away their freedom, their decision-making powers, and so often their dignity. In a way, that is partly the point – it is not meant to be a holiday. Most prison staff, especially Chaplains, do a remarkable job at mitigating this, making the prison as humane as it can be, treating prisoners with care, respect and skill, making the most of the opportunities there are for rehabilitation, despite the chronic lack of resources, staff levels that are far too low, and buildings unsuited for the task.
In the last week of his life here, Jesus was imprisoned, most likely in a small, underground cell with no light, much like a segregation unit. He entered the darkest, most desolate place, though even worse – the only prospect of release was to a cruel, public, painful death. Yet by entering the lowest place, he did so to redeem it, to break its power. He ‘became a curse for us, so that God’s blessing might come to us’ (Gal. 3.13-14). He entered prison, so that whatever imprisons us might not overcome us. That prison cell, the place of Jesus’ confinement, became a place through which redemption and freedom comes to the human race.
Prison will always be harsh, uncomfortable, brutal. Yet part of that redemption must mean giving prison staff and Governors the resources to make them also places of redemption, rather than just keeping the lid on the vast amount of frustration and aggression so often to be found in our jails. Our society needs a new vision for prisons, not just as a place of punishment, or somewhere to dump the people we would rather not think about and need to be protected from, but a place where lives can be restored, a place where prisoners can be given education, faith and hope, the skills they need to reintegrate into society on their release, and the resources to turn their lives around, spiritually, personally and socially. Prison can be redeemed and redeeming.