Early on in his radio series about the state of the nation’s prisons, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, is approached by a prisoner on remand, who asks for a blessing before he is sentenced. Bishop Jones offers a revealing response. He says: “Lord Jesus, bless X, as he comes before the court. We pray there may be justice and mercy, and ask that you help him to turn over a new leaf, and for his life to go better for him and his family. Amen. God bless you.”
There is a great deal going on in this prayer. It encompasses many of the components of what we expect from a criminal-justice system: justice, mercy, amendment, and rehabilitation. “It was just off the cuff,” the Bishop told me in an unpublished part of an interview I did with him on the series for the Radio Times. “But it recognises the element of desert, and of the punishment to come, and yet it also points him in the direction of making his life better, and that of those around him.”
In the three-part series The Bishop and the Prisoner, which began this week on Radio 4, and is on BBC Listen Again, the presenter uses his position as the Anglican Bishop to Prisons to gain unusual broadcasting access to record the voices of those who are least-often heard in this debate — the prisoners themselves.
They do not always say what you would expect. Going in and out of prison is just a way of life for many people, they say. You resolve to go straight only when you get old or tired. “My heart’s not in it any more,” one old lag says, explaining why he is determined not to be inside again. Interestingly, their pessimistic view of humanity is shared by right-wingers, who would like to see more people put in prison (despite the fact that our prisons contain more inmates than ever before), and want to see prisons made much more unpleasant places as an added deterrent.
The pivotal question for Bishop Jones is whether prisons can be only what he calls “warehouses to store the incorrigible”. Might they become instead “greenhouses to restore the redeemable”?
The first programme was a nuanced performance by the Bishop, who asked more questions than he gave answers. “What makes the difference is that I’m there with my dog-collar on,” he told me; “so people are opening up to me in a way they wouldn’t to a journalist.”
Michael Howard, when he was leader of the Conservative Party, famously asserted that “Prison works.” But the Bishop offers only partial agreement. Prison is supposed to punish offenders, protect the public, deter would-be criminals, and reform and rehabilitate its inmates. It succeeds only in the first two of those. “There’s definitely a need for prison in society, but we don’t use it as well as we should — and we send too many people there.”
Next week, he makes the case that punishment in the community is an effective alternative. In the third programme, he argues that restorative justice offers a way of rehumanising prison without losing the necessary objectivity that the courts bring to our justice system.
He looks at the Sycamore Tree programme, in which prisoners explore the effects of their crimes on victims, offenders, and the wider community. At the Forgiveness Project, piloted in a Surrey prison, he meets a woman who was raped repeatedly, and who was saved from death only because her attacker’s knife broke. “Sometimes I can forgive; sometimes I can’t forgive; sometimes I have to will myself to forgive,” she tells him. “Forgiveness is fluid.”
“People have to move through a range of emotions,” Bishop Jones says, “and what you find is that not only is the offender changed by an encounter with a victim, but the victim themselves can be changed.” Perhaps the real message is that the rest of us need to change, too.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.