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Reforming Prisons and Prisoners

David Cameron describes British prisons as needing ‘wholesale reform’ after years of ‘scandalous failure’. There are 85,634 people in prison- 81,814 men and 3,820 women. We imagine that this is some kind of holiday camp with all ‘mod cons’. In fact, our prisons are seriously over crowded.

In any week, there are 350 assaults on inmates and guards, 600 incidents of self-harming, and at least one suicide. Violence, drug-taking and self-harm are common and little is done to help prepare those released for normal life after prison. Prisons are breeding grounds for crime, rather than institutions of rehabilitation. 46% of released prisoners re-offend within a year and 60% of short term offenders return to crime in the same time. Prisons don’t work. We forget the people locked up behind high walls and barbed wire. The Prime Minister has some radical reforms in mind. Prison governors will have more freedom to run their prison effectively, pregnant women or those with young children will be tagged, non-violent prisoners will also be electronically tagged to work in the community each weekday and then return to prison each weekend. The tags will show where people are and even whether they drink alcohol or take drugs. Punishment is about trying to make the punishment fit the crime, but imprisonment is about more than removing threats to us all. It must be about reform and restoration. Society needs to try to put people right and enable them to give back to the community.

New Testament Christians and, sadly, many Christians today are no strangers to prison and captivity. They were and are put in prison for no other crime than their faith and proclaiming that faith. The People of Israel were no strangers to captivity. Instead of prison they were taken lock stock and barrel to another country to serve as slaves. Sometimes they even rose to high office. What keeps incarcerated Christians is hope; hope of return, hope of release and hope of being restored to normal life. They hope for the day they can be free to express and live their faith. The Israelites also hoped that they would return to their homeland. Prisoners need hope and that hope should be realistic and attainable.

I confess being in prison. I once led a choir visiting prison. The audience of prisoners hoped that our rendering of ‘Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho’ would bring the walls down. Not so! It did bring the house down. I also visited a Scottish prison. One cell was closed, but looking through the bars, was a naked man on a ’dirty protest’. He smeared himself with human waste. Anyone entering was embraced and covered with filth. He was given food through a closed hatch system. Then, I was taken to the exercise yard where a solitary prisoner stayed. Trying to talk with him only led to a torrent of bad language and abuse. These are examples of men who had little hope. One was there for life and the other was a terrorist who saw no real hope of national freedom. There are some that cannot expect to be released, but many prisoners need to have genuine hope. They need to be reformed. Reformation begins early and regularly.

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