Remember Those in Prison
"When it comes to prison work, too many congregations adopt a 'low profile' attitude compared with their commendable record on feeding and housing the homeless."
So ran the news Bulletin which announced the launch of Prisoners' Week, the purpose of which is to encourage Christians to become more aware of their responsibilities towards offenders and their families.
Are We Interested?
I don't know about our "commendable record on feeding and housing the homeless" but I do think that we have been slow to espouse the cause of prison reform.
It is true that as a church, we have made statements on the matter — notably in the Public Questions Report presented to our 1987 General Assembly. This brief but excellent statement took the position that punishment should be administered in keeping with Biblical teaching on the value and dignity of human life. It protested against humiliating treatment, insanitary conditions and overcrowding in prisons.
But an Assembly statement, buried in learned reports, is one thing; a grass-roots sense of responsibility in the matter is another. Asked if they are fulfilling their responsibilities towards offenders and their families, our people might well ask: what responsibilities?
The Caring Option
There's a host of responsibilities. On the level of personal caring, for example, take the situation of a young mother. She's got three of a family and only state benefits to live on. She's on her own because her man's in hospital; she's trachled, worried and upset.
We would not hesitate to say that Christians have a responsibility in such circumstances to rally round and extend practical and financial help, companionship, comfort and advice.
Why should it be any different if her man is in prison rather than in hospital? The need is just the same — or greater. With all the other problems, there may be the added ingredient of bewilderment, uncertainty, and shame. The responsibility to care is all the more pressing.
Or there's a young man who's out of work. He's got no training, no job experience; he can't get training because he's got no job experience, and he can't get job experience because he's got no training. He finds life a circle of frustration and emptiness. Wouldn't we say that Christians ought to think about how they might help him?
Why should we act differently if, into that circle of frustration and hopeless, we introduce another element: desperate for something more to live off than the minimum state benefit or to bring a spark of excitement to a boring life, he commits an offence and spends some time in one of Her Majesty's penal institutions.
The man's paid his debt to society now. Why make a distinction between the man that paid the debt and the one that never had a debt of that sort to pay? We usually respect people that pay their debts. Why, in this case, would we hold it against him for life and refuse to extend a helping hand in time of need? That's to make a man pay twice for the one offence — and that's a grave injustice.
Put yourself in the shoes of an offender and his family; imagine the trauma they go through; then you'll recognise the measure of our responsibility to them.
But, I think that more important still is that we should assume the responsibility of ensuring that punishment is carried out in a fitting and proper way.
Please note we're not saying that we put offenders in prison simply to try and straighten them out. We acknowledge that imprisonment may be necessary to protect society from offenders; we accept that the resources should be made available to enable offenders while in prison to learn skills which would equip them to live an honest and useful life when released. But we do not believe that that is the main purpose of our judicial system. We have no difficulty with the notion that an offender has to be punished. Our responsibility is to ensure that that punitive element is administered in a way that upholds our standards of justice and consonant with Christian norms.
We suspect this is a responsibility to which many Christian people have not given a thought. It wouldn't surprise me if many Christians were amongst those that clamour for longer prison sentences. It has never entered their minds to ask: is imprisonment just? Is it fair the sort of imprisonment we have in some situations today?
My contention is that many have been so busy protesting against the view that the rehabilitation of the offender is the main goal of the penal system, so busy upholding the retributive element in the administration of justice, that they have not sufficiently wrestled with the question whether imprisonment — and especially the sort of prison system we have — is in fact a punishment consistent with Biblical teaching.
Is Imprisonment Biblical?
Last night we pricked up our ears when we heard a speaker on Evening Call maintaining that imprisonment was Biblical. We listened at first with some incredulity. After all, the speaker was Dr Andrew Coyle, governor of Shotts prison, and it occurred to us that he might not be an entirely unbiased commentator. Since then we have learned that Dr Coyle, in an earlier existence, studied philosophy in Ireland and theology in the Scots College in Spain. No doubt he has looked at the matter from a broader perspective than most.
Still, I was interested to know how he was going to justify imprisonment from a Biblical standpoint. We were informed that imprisonment meant exile: the walls were there, not just to keep prisoners in, but to keep us out. I assume that he was thinking of the cities of refuge appointed in Biblical times for those who killed unintentionally without malice aforethought (Deuteronomy 19) and I found that a very interesting idea, worth reflecting on. Mind you, the Assembly Report to which I referred above takes the view that "exile" to the cities of refuge was not for the punishment of the offender but for his protection.
This is not the place for a thorough examination of the Biblical concept of crime and punishment. But one thing is clear: "to set the prisoner free" is something uniformly displayed in the Bible as commendable. It is on a level with opening the eyes of the blind, relieving the fatherless and the widow, lifting up those who are bowed down and frustrating the way of the wicked. It is an activity that God delights in (Psalm 146:7-9). It seems to suggest that, in Biblical times, imprisonment was not an acceptable option.
Lest anyone argue that this language is to be spiritually interpreted — God sets free those imprisoned in the grip of sin — remember that the setting of prisoners free can only be a good picture of spiritual realities if it is in itself a commendable practice. God couldn't describe his own mercy in terms of an act of injustice.
This means that we cannot claim Biblical authority for the view that imprisonment is the most obvious, acceptable or natural form of punishment or that the way to sort out criminals is to increase prison sentences.
Imprisonment: Basic Injustices
What constitutes the punishment in imprisonment? Is it merely a form of "exile" — essentially the deprivation of one's liberty? Or does it also consist in, say, the deprivation of adequate exercise, opportunities of learning and basic toilet facilities? Whichever of these we choose, we have to acknowledge that there are basic injustices brought about by varying prison conditions. If the punishment in imprisonment simply involves the deprivation of liberty, then why are some prisoners fairly severely deprived of a good number of other basic things as well? If the punishment is all-round physical and mental deprivation and hardship, then, firstly, why aren't all subjected to the same deprivation and, secondly, why do we allow it?
The fact of the matter is that prison conditions vary too greatly for us to have any confidence that justice is being done. Ernest Saunders, put away for his role in illegal share dealing, and John Dowling, jailed for the murder of Castle-milk schoolgirl Christine Lee, will no doubt have very different stories to tell when they get out of prison. But the difference doesn't stem from the fact that one got five years and the other a recommended 15 years, but from the conditions in which they will be kept.
If punishment is "exile" how come some are effectively suffering "exile plus" and others not? Five years in one prison just doesn't equal five years in another. In one, there may be a toilet in each cell, plenty exercise and educational opportunities. In another, no in-cell toilet facilities, 23 hours a day confinement and no educational pursuits — at least, none of a positive nature.
True, different people will react to prison in different ways: what one finds unbearable to the point of being driven to suicide or revolt, another may be able to tolerate. But the fact is that one prisoner can be punished far more severely than another though both have been given the same sentence, just because of the conditions of the "exile" imposed. The law required no different sentence; but effectively a different punishment is imposed. That just isn't justice.
Towards Better Prison Conditions?
We can only welcome whatever equalisation there is in basic prison conditions, provided of course this involves an "evening up" rather than an "evening down" process. We don't grudge Mr. Saunders the treatment he gets; we just wish everyone could be imprisoned in the conditions he enjoys, (or, more probably, doesn't enjoy).
A report issued by the country's senior prisons' inspector, Mr. Alan Bishop, evoked the headline "The dark days are over at Barlinnie". The improvement, of course, is relative: overcrowding is no longer an acute problem at Barlinnie; the authorities are now in control where formerly virtual anarchy existed. The Caseworker concept whereby uniformed staff are directly involved in dealing with prisoners' day-to-day problems has been an unqualified success.
On the other hand, all is not well: he had to report that chamber-pots were scarce. That these are needed is a stark reminder that we have been willing to exile folks to settings where basic amenities do not exist. That equipment as basic as that is in short supply is a measure of how overstrained the prison system has become. Jails which are over a hundred years old just do not come up to acceptable standards.
We must welcome the many improvements that have been made and pay tribute to prison staff who work in very trying conditions. But we must assume too our responsibility to take an interest in prison conditions and not confine human beings to situations that we wouldn't normally use even for animals.
Or Towards Economic Efficiency?
The prison population in Scotland is declining: only 90% of prison capacity is taken up. We welcome that, but the result is that the decision has been taken to close Friarton Jail near Perth and to shut blocks at Peterhead and Cornton Vale.
Obviously, there is a need for rationalisation of resources so as to direct limited resources to the areas of greatest need. No doubt, there are practical reasons for closing the places mentioned but the fact of the matter is that the Cornton Vale block to be closed is one of the most modern, with toilets in every cell. This makes us ask if there is a policy to phase out older prisons or to upgrade basic facilities in them, or does the economic factor rule?
The Christian public have too easily left it to others to formulate a philosophy for our penal system to operate on. We have been too content to say: punishment first, rehabilitation second. Besides being guilty of making a false dichotomy, we have failed to reflect on what the punishment consists of. We have allowed injustice to flourish through the harshness and variety of prison conditions. The greatest responsibility that we could assume is to give our minds to reflect on a Biblical theory of punishment and to seek to have it implemented in a positive and useful way, in a form appropriate to our present circumstances.