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Rembrandt behind bars

09 December 2016

Prisoners can relate to the prodigal son, says David Beedon, in the first of a two-part reflection

A model: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt van Rijn

A model: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt van Rijn

THE Prisons and Probations Ombudsman — who runs the independent inspectorate that investigates deaths in custody — called his annual report A Rising Toll of Despair in 2014. The report for last year did not suggest much improvement, and noted that the number of suicides behind bars had remained unacceptably high.

After consecutive years where the number of deaths in custody had reduced (owing to improved safeguarding measures), there has recently been an increase once again: a rise of 38 per cent in two years. This is despite the best efforts of staff who work to mitigate the detrimental effects of imprisonment.

As a prison chaplain, I have been wrestling with how chaplaincy teams and other departments that offer pastoral care can best respond appropriately to the sense of hopelessness that crushes some human souls to the point of self-destruction.

The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks with pastoral power to prisoners — even those from the most nominal of Christian backgrounds. The narrative contains foolishness, waywardness, hardship, and resentment, besides the promises of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is obvious why those who are incarcerated can so easily inhabit the story imaginatively.

We have a large framed poster of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son in our chapel, and it is a frequent talking-point. For this year’s summer course for prisoners on the Christian faith, I drew on Henri Nouwen’s book inspired by the picture, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A story of homecoming (DLT, 1994), to reflect on the parable. I was amazed and delighted with the level of engagement displayed by the participants with both the story and the painting.

The degree to which they identified with the characteristics of the prodigal, his father, and the elder brother was heartwarming and edifying — for them and for me. At the heart of the story are two words that I have been reflecting on as I attempt to formulate a pastoral response to the “rising toll of despair”.

The first word comes in the story as the prodigal son hits rock bottom in his life trajectory — a trajectory that mirrors that of many prisoners. The narrative says that “When he [the son] had come to himself” (Luke 15.17), he turned back to humble himself before his father.

The key word in Greek from this sentence is eauton, “himself”. It does not say “come to his senses”, as the phrase is sometimes translated. Coming “to himself” denotes a refinding of the prodigal’s true self. The term sometimes described a return to mental well-being after a period of derangement. This resonates with the best of rehabilitative practice, which facilitates a prisoner’s journey of discovery back to his true self.

Criminologists such as Shadd Maruna have highlighted the part that faith can play as a resource on this journey towards desistance — the cessation of offending. In Christian theology, that deeper and truer self is understood to be created in the image of God. As history suggests, this has not consistently fostered humane intentions within the Christian community towards other human beings. Christians seem to be as capable of inhumanity towards others as adherents of any other faith, or people of no religious belief.

None the less, however flawed Christian practice has been, belief that the imago Dei resides at the heart of human “being” is something that calls and recalls us consistently to seek that divine light in the depth of the soul. As the Quakers would have it, “Seek that of God in everyone.”

In my prison ministry, I have had the privilege, in many pastoral conversations, of glimpsing the truer self that is frequently buried beneath the detritus of chaotic family backgrounds, and masked by dysfunctional behaviour.

It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of those I serve: stories of neglect, abuse, and abandonment — none of which excuses their criminal behaviour. It does, at best, remind us that there but for the grace of God go we. As an experienced chaplain said to me when I was being mentored, before leaving parish ministry: “I often think to myself: if I had walked in their shoes, I would be sitting where they are now.”

So eauton informs pastoral practice, in so far as it encourages us to remember, even when a person is being loathsome, that there remains something of incalculable value woven into the fabric of his or her being. I have witnessed staff in the face of vile and violent behaviour continue to treat those in their care with dignity and respect.

As people are human, it does not happen at all times and in all places. This is something that the Prison Service is addressing through initiatives such as the Five Minute Intervention, where prison officers make the most of the daily interactions that they have with prisoners; and Every Contact Matters, where staff are encouraged to use their time with prisoners better, and to do something positive with every interaction. These work to promote more consistent quality relational interactions between prisoners and staff.

In the second part of my reflection, I will consider the other word from the parable of the prodigal son which speaks pastorally into the penal context: compassion.


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

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