Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Redeeming Prison

On Monday I sat in on a senior meeting of the staff of a London prison, as they recounted the various incidents that had happened over the weekend. It was like listening to a tidal wave of pain. Half a dozen episodes of self-harm, several men found with ligatures around their necks threatening suicide, a number of fires set off in cells, rooms vandalised, a prison officer stabbed in the face by an out of control prisoner wielding a sharpened plastic knife. Visiting the segregation unit was sobering. The tiny rectangular cells, twelve feet by six, with a dirty window opening on a prison yard, were bare, stark, pitiless. The more extreme cases, like the man who stabbed the officer, had been placed in ‘special accommodation’, as a last resort to cool down – a dark, cold box room, with no light, not even a bed – nothing. It is hard to imagine a more desolate and desperate place.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for an illuminating if sad reflection.

    Prisons are necessary, but how we treat people in them is a clue to the type of society that we are part off. I'm not one of those who suggest that locking them u and throwing away the keys is the solution. I believe in resttorative justice, where Prisoners confined, are given the opportunity to make amends for their past deeds and their victims have an opportunity for closure and forgiveness.

    But we also need to build prison institutions, where inmates have sufficient personal space and time to reflect, to learn and to socialise in ways that are not combative, but a reflection of the peace of Jesus Christ.

    Surely, we can see that our common humanity means that locking people away as a punitive measure, while it might satisfy the need for vengeance, isn't what we should be doing. Rehabilitation is needed in real ways, to empower and enable inmates to take responsibility for their own lives, through real education and training that will prepare them for life in community when the return to the outside life, as they surely will.

    The also needs to be treatment for addictions, to get people off of drug dependency and to give hope that a brighter future and better health is there for the taking.

    If we want prison to be redeeming and redemptive, surely we need to move away from the old system to a more enlightened one. I pray that we will see that light and soon.


The Tree of Life - Thoughts of Hope after Grenfell

This is the text of a sermon preached at St Clement's church North Kensington on the occasion of the blessing of a garden for Peace, ...