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How custodial compassion works on the inside

16 December 2016

Hope can be nurtured in the prisons, says David Beedon, in the second of his two-part series


I BEGAN a pastoral reflection last week on the situation in prisons which led the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman to call his annual report in 2014 A Rising Toll of Despair (Faith, 9 December). It is a situation that has not improved over the succeeding two years, and suicides behind bars remain unacceptably high, as do incidents of self-harm.

As a prison chaplain, I have been wrestling with how chaplaincy teams, and other departments that offer pastoral care, can respond appropriately to the sense of hopelessness which leads some human souls to the point of self-destruction or harm. The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks with pastoral power to prisoners, and a poster of Rembrandt’s depiction of the prodigal’s return hangs in our chapel, where it is much remarked on by prisoners.

Two words from the parable have proved to be rich in pastoral insights for in-prison ministry. First, considered last week, the prodigal’s finding of his true self (eauton) is a reminder that there is something of incalculable value which remains woven into the being of even the most dangerous or dysfunctional person. As Christians, we choose to call this the imago Dei.

The second word that I find informative for pastoral practice from the parable comes in the passage that describes the son’s shamefaced homecoming: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15.20 NRSV).

In the original Greek, the word for “compassion” used here is from the verb splagchnizomai. Literally, it refers to a person’s bowels churning. The form of compassion envisaged in this Lucan narrative (and also in the parable of the Good Samaritan) is a regard for others which embodies a love that connects one human being to another at a visceral level.

This is not a notion alien to Western thought. John Donne famously declared: “No man is an island, entire of itself” (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624). The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote of human flourishing in terms of the establishment of an I-Thou (self-to-self) relationship, in distinction to the diminishing I-It (self-to-object) form of relating common in modern life (I and Thou, 1923; Faith, 25 September 2015).

Donne and Buber recognised that human beings flourish in relationships within the wider context of a shared humanity. This resonates with the insights of the African cultural concepts of Ubuntu and Sawu Bona.

Ubuntu is an approach that informed the theology of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and had practical outworkings in the reconciliatory part he played in post-apartheid South Africa (Michael Battle, Reconciliation: The Ubuntu theology of Desmond Tutu, Pilgrim Press, 2009). It refers to a sense that, however deep our differences within the human race, there is an imperishable bond of humanity. This fosters a moral attitude that says: “If you are diminished, then part of who I am (in my true self) is diminished as well.”

Sawu Bona means “I/We see you.” This is not merely visual regard, although that is not to be discounted. The “seeing” of Sawu Bona refers to a deeper regard; where another (in Buber’s terms, a “Thou”) is fully present to us through humane attentiveness, as we seek to make ourselves fully present to the “Other” that we behold humanely.

Acknowledgement of the shared bond of humanity — even with those who are so easily despised — can evoke a gut-wrenching compassion, within which our own flourishing resides. If, as the Christian faith suggests, we cannot flourish as human beings outside the love of God, we should heed John’s warning: “Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (1 John 3.17, KJV).

The theologian Timothy Gorringe has written of society’s banishment of prisoners beyond its margins — behind bars and razor wire, hidden from view — as echoing Old Testament scapegoating (”The Prisoner as Scapegoat”, Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 35, 2002). If the diminishment of another diminishes us collectively, our social health is impaired whenever incarceration is merely a punitive device to satisfy a retributive impulse.

“Custodial compassion” is a phrase that I have coined in my pastoral wrestling in a penal context challenged by a “rising toll of despair”. The “custodial” element recognises the desirability of order and discipline to provide the secure environment within which human beings can flourish.

“Compassion” behind bars, for staff, is about acknowledging, in our daily interactions with prisoners, the humanity we share, and doing all that we can to see the deeper selves hidden within broken lives. Then, by what we do and how we do it, we can seek to nurture humanely that “better self”, so that it might become established as the “new self” that many offenders desire to be.

A practice of embodied hope is an antidote to destructive despair. It is breathtaking to see this happen, and a privilege to be part of the transformative work undertaken by the Prison Service to make a difference in the lives of offenders.

Your prayers that this work may further prosper are invited and welcome.


The Revd David Beedon is the Anglican Chaplain at HM Prison Ranby, in the diocese of Southwell & Nottingham.

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