Hope means new opportunities in prison-despite ‘squalid’ conditions
Poor conditions in prisons have been in the news this week. Living conditions at HMP Hewell, near Redditch, Worcestershire, were described as “the worst I have seen” by Peter Clarke of HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP). “Squalid, demeaning and depressing” was the final verdict in Mr Clarke’s inspection. Meanwhile, a report has revealed that Winchester prison’s inmates are at “serious risk” from the availability of drugs, high levels of self-harm and unfit buildings. The Hampshire jail is currently featuring on the Channel 4 documentary Crime And Punishment. HMP Winchester’s “outdated fabric cannot provide a humane living environment,” according to the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB). Rioting also took place inside the prison in August.
Isolation and Separation
In such a context, it goes without saying that life in prison can be very difficult for inmates. Such poor conditions, added to isolation and separation from family, makes life intolerable for some. Bishop Richard Moth, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference Liaison Bishop for Prisons, has such difficulties in mind in raising awareness of the upcoming Prisons Week. “The prisoner, the victim, the family member, uniformed and support staff, magistrates, prison chaplains – all can find themselves calling out or silently yearning for mercy and grace to help them in times of need,” he said. As Bishop Moth mentions, staff, too can struggle in such an environment. With so much to do, and lowering staffing levels, they can find themselves left behind. “The motivation and encouragement to keep moving forwards can be drowned out by the pressing, competing voices of very real needs,” he said. So how can the Catholic community help in such a difficult environment?
Hope is Paramount
A recent Prison Reform Trust report sought to answer the question: What do you need to make best use of your time in prison? After interviewing 1250 people who have experienced prison in some way, the overwhelming response was that prisoners need hope more than anything. Hope means new opportunities and the possibility of a fresh start. Scottish prison chaplain Dr Harry Schinker believes in the chaplain’s role as one that “show(s) the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.” Providing prisoners with the opportunity to serve in some way can also bring hope. Dr Schinker tries to put this into practice during the celebration of Mass, as he explained to the Scottish Catholic Observer. “From the Mass springs empowerment: prisoners read, serve at the altar, take charge of coffee and tea, distribute reading materials. These are acts of responsibility many have never had in their lives,” he said. “Reading in public is daunting, but once done also gives a great sense of achievement. Taking part, having a role, being accepted: they are essential aspects of redemption behind bars.”
Dignity, Love and Mercy
Fr Robert Lasia, former Chaplain to HMP Forest Bank, Salford, emphasised the love and mercy of God in his work. “I sincerely believe that the main work of a prison chaplain is to help a prisoner see that he does have dignity, that he is valued by God and by us,” he said. “Once a prisoner comes to realise his own dignity, it’s my hope that he will see and appreciate the dignity in others.” In the face of the depressing statistics found in the HMIP reports and Channel 4 documentary, some may view the work of Dr Schinker and Fr Lasia as insignificant. Yet we are reminded of the parable of the mustard seed. Although it is “the smallest of all seeds…when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” (Matthew 13:32) In the same way, chaplaincy work is largely unseen, but bears much fruit in the life of prisoners and prison workers. One example of a prisoner who discovered hope through a prison worker is “Michael” (not his real name). Michael shared with Janet, a Family Engagement Worker from prison charity PACT, about keeping in touch with his daughter and building a positive relationship with her. Janet helped Michael do this through a parenting course, which enables parents and children to bond in an interactive, extended child-centred visit. Michael was able to spend quality time with his daughter. As a result, their relationship has gone from strength to strength, which has given him the hope and the determination he needs to stay on the right path as he waits for his release date. In such ways, prison workers and chaplains are continuing the ministry of Jesus today, who identified himself with prisoners forever with his words in Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison and you visited me.”
Picture: Father Tom McNally prays with death-row inmate Eric Wrinkles at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City in this file photo from 18 December 18 2008 (CNS photo/Tim Hunt, Northwest Indiana Catholic)Tags: BBC, Bishop Moth, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Catholic Chaplaincy, Channel 4, chaplain, Gospel, prison, prison chaplains, prison reform, Prison Reform Trust, Winchester