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Prison reform isn’t just for prisoners

2012 January 6
by Paul Vallely

Early on in the Bishop of Liverpool’s radio series on the state of the nation’s prisons he is approached by a prisoner on remand asking for a blessing ahead of his sentencing. The Rt Rev James 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 new leaf and for his life to go better for him and his family. Amen. God bless you”.

There’s a lot going on in that prayer. It encompasses many of the key 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 “It was just off the cuff,” the bishop told me in an unpublished part of an interview I did with him on the series for the Radio Times.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.”

The three-part series, which began this week on Radio 4, and is on BBC Listen Again, is called The Bishop and the Prisoner. In it the presenter uses his position as Anglican bishop for prisons to gain unusual broadcasting access to record the voices of those who are least often heard in the national debate about prisons – 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 only resolve to go straight when you get old or tired. “My heart’s not in it any more,” one old lag says, explaining why he has determined not to return to jail. Interestingly their bleak and pessimistic view of humanity is shared by right-wingers who would like to see more people put in prison (despite the fact that our jails contain more inmates than ever before) and want to see prisons made considerably more unpleasant places as an added deterrent.

The pivotal question for Bishop Jones is whether prisons can only be what he calls “warehouses to store the incorrigible”. Might instead they become “greenhouses to restore the redeemable”?

The first programme in the series was a subtle and 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 Tory party leader, 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 rehabilitee 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 which 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 repeatedly raped, and who was only saved from death 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,” he 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.

Church Times

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