It is Prisoners’ Sunday on 10 October.
When I think about the 78,830 people in prison in England and Wales today, I think about what Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker said: “We have to make it easy for people to be good.”
Among our prison population are people with mental health problems, substance abuse issues, learning disabilities and sometimes a combination of factors. Naming these struggles is not to make excuses for what people have done but it is to question whether prison is the right “treatment” for all of them.
Through the height of the pandemic, prisoners were confined to their cells for more than 23 hours a day with no access to chapel, visits or proper education and training. It is easy to see how this has led to what Pact’s CEO Andy Keen-Downs, describes as “a crisis of mental illness and despair in our prisons, the scale of which I have never seen before”. He also said that “…unless we can provide the care, support, and rehabilitation services needed, far too many people will leave prison only to commit further crimes, harming our communities”.
Pact, the Prison Advice and Care Trust, supports prisoners and their families across England and Wales. The “families” part is really important because without support, family members can serve a hidden sentence of isolation, practical hardship and emotional distress. Additionally, Lord Farmer described the golden thread of family connection which, when nurtured, means that prisoners are 39 per cent less likely to reoffend after release. Pact puts prisoners and their families at the centre of all it does, listening to lived experience and shaping services accordingly.
As with so much in public life, we know a great deal of what works. Yet we struggle to create systems and structures where it is easy for people to be good. Anyone who has tried to access support to which they are entitled from the authorities will recognise the overwhelming, confusing, patience-destroying experience that is a family member attempting to navigate the prison system and stay connected with their loved one.
Pact is part of Catholic heritage, founded 120 years ago as the Catholic Prisoners Aid Society. Today the highly-regarded charity works with people of all faiths and none – but the influence of Catholic values remains central: human dignity, respect and the belief that everyone can be redeemed and make a fresh start whatever they have done.
In the last couple of weeks, in my new role at Pact, I was privileged to meet two former prisoners who have made that fresh start. Having been supported by Pact, they are full of energy and willingness to support the charity’s work themselves. The meeting was a filming session and Lewis and Jamie were meeting for the first time. In front of the camera, they sat and shared with each other their experiences of prison and life after release. They talked about how their faith had nourished them - along with good people who did not judge them. They spoke of the welcome they did or did not receive in parishes where they wanted to belong.
I listened; my heart aching with the beauty of those few minutes.
Those oft-quoted values of human dignity and respect were electrifyingly brought to life in the way these two people related to each other. They talked about the anger, frustration and despair that fills prisons and, tragically, the people in them. Jamie spoke about trying to do something good “now, even though it can’t balance the scales, I know that.” Lewis spoke about once being someone who would mock Christians but now taking time to pray with his partner each morning. He said that discovering his faith in prison had ‘melted the bars.’
When John the Baptist said he was not fit to undo Jesus’ sandal, that’s how I felt listening to these two people who are living new lives and truly bearing good fruit.
I encourage you to join with Pact in listening to prisoners and their families. Not to feel sorry for “them” but rather to be inspired to be better and to do better in the way we build our communities and our systems. In promoting Prisoners’ Sunday, we might recall that Jesus challenged us with these words: “I was in prison and you came to me.” Being with Lewis and Jamie reminded me that Jesus didn’t just mean that this is a good thing to do for the prisoner’s sake, but also for myself, for ourselves and our efforts to put our faith into action.
Canon Paul Douthwaite, National Catholic Chaplain for Prisons has said: “The Church embraces that which challenges society’s norms and demonstrates, as Jesus did, compassion for those who are imprisoned. The invitation to ‘visit’ the prisoner can be responded to in so many ways.”
It is worth listening to Lewis’ performance poetry piece, and also, setting aside the necessary three minutes or so to accept Jesus’ invitation and “visit” powerful testimony from someone who was a prisoner and in his own words has now found that God has a plan for him. Maybe try a longer visit and spend 30 minutes watching Lewis and Jamie in conversation. It can break the most hardened heart wide open.
Theresa Alessandro is the Catholic Community Engagement Manager at Pact, the Prison Advice and Care Trust. Theresa lives in the diverse city of Leicester. She studied theology - and Maths - at Birmingham University back in the 1980s. She found the theology very hard at the time but has found it invaluable ever since. As a former speech and language therapist, she is a fan of Pope Francis for his magnificent communication skills and of Catholic social teaching for its radical exposition of gospel values.