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Can jails be for healing?

02 May 2012

The prison system urgently needs a coherent approach based on compassion and rehabilitation, argues William Strettle


WE ARE told that in order to inherit eternal life, we must love God with every fibre of our being, and love our neighbour as ourselves (Luke 10.27). We are called to this in the context of a transient life, and we have to live with the concomitants of transience: fear, insecurity, and doubt.

Within this turbulent existence, to love those who criminally offend us is especially difficult. I would want to acknowledge the commitment of prison visitors and volunteers who communicate Christ’s love to those whom we imprison. I believe that we can communicate his love more powerfully to our offenders, as well as create a much more effective and fair criminal-justice system, if we commit ourselves to it as a national community.

We compromise Christ’s directive to love our neighbours who offend us by positioning our offenders at a distance. I recall attending a Chris­tian meeting some years ago and talking to a man about the need to accept offenders for who they are. He said: “Yes, that’s all very well, but they have to be made responsible for what they do.”

Of course, that is a reasonable statement, but, as an education guid­ance worker for seven years at one of largest male remand prisons in Britain, I worked with people whose life-history of neglect and childhood physical and sexual abuse made a reasonable approach to them ir­relevant.

I remember one young man who told me how he could never escape the terror he had felt from the moment his mother threw him down the stairs when he was three. In such circumstances, you cannot force people to be responsible for what they do in the same way as you might with many others: you cannot simply impose reasoning on some­one with such damage, and expect it to work.

To say: “Yes, but there must be punishment,” makes loving others as ourselves conditional, and is surely not what Christ intended. Furthermore, our judgemental approach is not necessarily based on rationally objective justice. We often tend to react emotionally, out of a sense of being personally offended, and want to exact retribu­tion that is not appropriate to the offence. Let us be clear: our official ultimate punishment is incarcera­tion.

Some high-profile crimes can elicit a powerful reaction from many of us. We can even associate the perpetrators with those who have hurt us personally in the past, and want to exact a retribution that we think would bring justice for our­selves, and even perhaps healing. Yet we are applying a personal experi­ence to a situation that has no con­nection with us. This is not justice.

THE functioning of our prison system is alarmingly unsatisfactory. Figures are hard to come by, but, in December 2010, a prison officer told me some grim facts: assaults on staff by prisoners are increasing; the rate of prisoner self-harm has grown by 20-23 per cent each year over the past few years; and deaths in custody have gone up by ten per cent. Most insidious of all is the top-down bullying culture, which seems to be intrinsic to many prisons, cascading down from governors to wing officers and beyond.

The Parliamentary Justice Com­mit­tee report, Role of the Prison Officer (2009) provides evid­ence from prison officers and criminal-justice staff of experiences of feeling unsupported and demoti­vated; a repeated complaint was that staff did not know to whom they were accountable.

What makes this situation even more chaotic is the personal in­fluence of those who want to propel the system in one direction only. Our justice system continues to be manipulated politically towards a populist punitive ethos. This is shamefully irresponsible. When the Legal Aid Bill, which is now being discussed in Parliament, left the Ministry of Justice, it had the word “rehabilitation” in the title. It arrived in Parliament from No. 10 with the word “punishment”.

TO REFLECT Christ’s unconditional love for our offenders as a com­munity, we need a national philo­sophy of healing and compassion. Such a philosophy would be based on acknowledged truths that may be crystallised as: violence is damage by people who are damaged themselves, and so we should we commit our criminal-justice system to heal that damage; also: revenge never works: it brings neither peace nor fulfillment.

I would propose three more truths: in­carceration is the ultimate punish­ment: no further retribu­tion is required; prisons should be places of healing; and compassion should be at the heart of our criminal-justice system.

I would also suggest a programme to involve the national community. For perhaps three months, the public, in regional centres, would be given an opportunity to discuss the stated truths, and to claim ownership of the philosophy. Three months after this, a national criminal-justice committee could be created, repre­sent­ing the British public. This body would liaise with the Government about maintaining the philosophy.

All this could help to bring about a single compassionate direction for a fully integrated criminal justice system, which would be accountable to us, the national community. I believe it would be a commitment close to Christ’s words about loving our neighbour.

A powerful example of such commitment is the life of Elizabeth Fry, probably our greatest prison reformer. Whenever she went to the authorities on behalf of the women she worked with at Newgate Prison, she would always begin with the word “we”: “We want” and “We need.” If she could do that, I am sure we can.

William Strettle is a counsellor who worked in education guidance at Strangeways Prison for seven years. He conducted the first non-directive therapy in a British remand prison.

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