Prisons and Jesus. And the Church.

This post is not very well structured…
Today was a prison day.

This morning on the train to work, I was doing my reading for a tute presentation I am doing soon. It’s for my Crime, Punishment and Society subject and it is on the sociology of prisons. I was expecting a history of prisons – the panopticon, and the theory behind why prisons are run the way that they are. Instead all of the readings were the stories of current prisoners in Australian gaols, with a focus on “restorative prisons”.

Reading about restorative prisons sounds like a fantasy. In restorative prisons crimes are presented not committed against the state, but against victims and the community. So victims and the community are involved in their sentence. Prisoners are made more aware of the effect of their crimes on their victims (somehow). The prisoners are given actual jobs to do inside the prison to give back to society, things like repairing goods and donating them to local and international charities. There is more interaction with the wider community. Restorative prisons are not just about running programs though, they are a holistic approach to prisons. All prison staff are taught about new restorative ideas and principles, so they can explore ways for their prisons to incorporate restorative principles, and to increase accountability among staff. A full-time restorative justice consultant works with the highest levels of management in each prison. New prisons are built with less imposing architecture. The goal is for prison to be an experience that helps to keep prisoners socialised and to smooth out their return to society so they are comfortable in the real world. Currently many prisoners re-offend because their lack of life skills and lack of support networks outside of prison leave them no option but to return to crime. Many of the interviewees in the articles expressed the feeling of helplessness outside of prison and the fact that prison becomes a home, despite the harsh conditions inside. It makes me think of the scene in the Shawshank Redemption where the nice old prisoner has been imprisoned for 20 years finishes his sentence and then tries to kill a fellow prisoner so he can stay inside.

Restorative justice sounds like an awesome response, but it has only been actually implemented in Belgium, which doesn’t bode well for liberal welfare states like Australia, the US and England. Scotland had one prison which changed to be more restorative, but I think its funding was cut. Australia has a restorative program in one prison, in Western Australia. It is privately run, and it allows an independent Christian group to run programs with restorative principles. However the prison itself hasn’t changed, and state run prisons around the country show no sign of changing their structures and methods of looking after prisoners.

After I got to work, I went along to the weekly devotion (which I can’t actually justify going along to weekly, because I am not full time, so I go occasionally). Today’s devotion was run by a man called Rob. He heads up the aged care department of Anglicare, but today he had a story about visiting a friend in prison. The whole morning has got me thinking about the crapness of prison and also the necessity of the church stepping up to do more to care for people inside and recently released from prison. If we wait for government policy to catch up, that will take forever. Anglicare has chaplains who go to all the prisons around Sydney, as do many other denominations and church groups, but what about the people who come out and struggle coping in the real world? I’m realising more and more that the church (particularly the one I am in) has immediate ramifications by being lazy about helping the marginalized. I mean, I know we try, but our efforts seem so pitiful. We know to look out for the homeless, new immigrants, the sick and the elderly – although in some of these cases we don’t do so well either. But there are so many types of people who just seem too distant from church culture, and I think that prisoners and recently discharged prisoners fall in the middle of that category.

Think of what Jesus has to offer every human being:
– unshakable love
– acceptance of us at the core of our being
– true humanity
– a resurrection!
– forgiveness for anything and everything we have done
– justice for the wrongs we see in the world
– a heavenly Father
– a global family – real and actual brothers and sisters

And now think about what that would mean to people who have spent years in an institution where they are a problem first and a human second, where no one from the outside can see them or wants to see them, where time passes and your life has no value or meaning. And think about how the church could show love to people who emerge from prison and have no where to go!

What do we do about it?


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