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The Bishop and the F word

2012 January 5
by Paul Vallely

There is something shocking about hearing a bishop use the f-word. But Rt Rev James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, puts it to good use when he intones a high-minded notice about re-education and rehabilitation in Britain’s jails – and then reads out the obscene comment some inmate has scrawled on the bottom. It underscores the degree of alienation between polite society and those we lock up, whose numbers are now at their highest level ever.

In a three-part series for Radio 4, The Bishop and the Prisoner, he has been given an unusual degree of access in three jails – Liverpool, High Down in Surrey and Forest Bank in Greater Manchester – and talks to prison staff, politicians but also to prisoners whose voices are rarely heard on radio. But those who might expect the Anglican Bishop for Prisons to put forgiveness before punishment may be surprised at his willingness to ask hard questions.

The programme begins with a montage of political mantras: “prison works”, “tough on crime” and “we need to understand less and condemn more”. But he is clear that most of those inside have “done something wrong for which they need to be punished, both in their own interests and those of society”. So prison works? “To a degree. It punishes and it protects the rest of society from those who are locked up.”

He then meets political pundits David Green and Peter Hitchens who suggest that we need to lock up even more people and make prisons much more unpleasant places so that inmates will get tired of being sent there. Intriguingly there is tangential support for this view from several recidivist prisoners who have finally resolved to go straight. “You get sick and tired of it, in and out, in and out, in and out,” says one. “My heart’s not in it any more,” adds another. The place is “full of criminals,” a third says, with mock indignation.

Yet “are prisons just warehouses to store the incorrigible,” the bishop asks, or could they be “greenhouses to restore the redeemable”?  If prison is to do its job properly it must do more than incarcerate; it must renovate.

Criminologists say prison should do five things: punish criminals, deter others, protect the public, reform offenders and rehabilitate them to make reparation to society. The problem is that prisons stop halfway down the list, Bishop Jones says and “the cost to society is enormous”.

In the programmes the bishop poses lots of questions to others. So how does he answer them himself? Are we tough enough on crime, I ask him. He laughs and says: “There’s a tabloid editor is every one of us. When we see something awful anger is the right reaction. But if you stop at anger neither the victim or society is well-served”.

So do we send too many people to prison? “I think we do.” A recent Audit Commission report suggested that what all criminals have in common is that they do not have a relationship with someone who believes in them. “Restoring such a relationship is crucial in restoring offenders. And yet when we send someone to prison we remove them from their family and those they love. We are isolating them from the very thing they most need.”

But aren’t non-custodial punishments in the community, the subject of programme two, just a soft option? “There’s a percentage of prisoners that need to be in prison to protect the public but a large number could be dealt with in Community Payback schemes,” he says. “They lose their leisure time. They have to wear jackets to show they are doing Community Payback so people in the local community, who are fearful of crime, can see they are being punished. And it’s a deterrent for other young people who wouldn’t like to be seen in that position.”

The most convincing argument, he says, is the re-offending rates. “With prison, around about 60 per cent re-offend within 12 months; with Community Payback, it’s about 36 per cent. So it’s good for the community and it’s good for the prisoner”.

In the final programme he looks at restorative justice projects. Inside Liverpool prison he records during a session where a group of prisoners are being addressed by a mother whose son was murdered. “I watched their body language change,” the bishop says. “They were all sitting back at first but then, by the time she had finished talking, they were leaning forward, riveted.” Offenders often have very little idea of the mayhem their offences cause in the lives of others, he says. “Sometimes this is the first time they really understand what they have done.”

Yet he also interviews victims who are not prepared to forgive. “You need a system which accommodates both groups of people. Nobody can presume on a victim to forgive because when you have been violated anger is an important part of human reaction.”

So should we then, in the words of the former prime minister John Major, understand less and condemn more?

“It’s best not to condemn without understanding,” Bishop Jones concludes. “The 1952 Prison Act requires that there is a chaplain in every prison. The chaplain is the only person who does not have the remit to punish. They are there, in my opinion, to humanise the prison and to show that the criminal justice system is not just about punishment. It is also about how the moral and spiritual character of the offender should be restored”.

from the Radio Times

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