Cardinal Vincent Nichols has condemned as unacceptable the conditions in prisons in the UK and society’s failure in its duty to offenders.
In a speech to prison chaplains at their annual conference on Tuesday at St Mary's University, London, the Cardinal criticised a system that, at best, “warehouses people” and, at worst, damaged them.
“It is a stain on our society that in the twenty-first century some prisons are still characterised by rubbish, damp, dirt, graffiti, and unhygienic facilities,” he told chaplains. “A society which shows such contempt for a prisoner’s dignity truly undermines that prisoner’s chance of reforming their lives,” he added.
He cited the “shockingly” high incidents of suicide, self-harm and assault in prisons. “Every one of these is a tragedy,” he said.
Calling for a fundamental reform of the prison system, Cardinal Nichols promised the Government: “The Catholic Church will be your partner in this. We are ready to work alongside and support you in transforming prisons from places of despair to places of redemption.”
He urged Catholic employers and dioceses to “ban the box”, the checkbox that requires people to disclose their sentence on initial application forms for employment and described the “crushing disappointment” former offenders face when they are rejected out of hand; adding that employers are also deprived of excellent workers and society of working taxpayers.
Rather, he said, organisations should allow people to disclose and discuss their conviction later in the recruitment process. “Then they have a chance to put their past in context and show who they really are,” he said.
“Over the coming year I look forward to discussions about how the Church can ban the box in our own employment practices, while taking all the necessary steps to ensure that safeguarding is never compromised. I personally appeal to all employers to take this step and give people a fair opportunity that will benefit our society,” he said. “Dioceses too have such opportunities if they can create social enterprise programmes with employment possibilities.”
The Bishops’ Conference and Caritas Westminster this week joined with the social research organisation Lemos&Crane to urge Catholics to volunteer with prisoners and ex-offenders and support chaplains and charities during National Prisons Week, 9-15 October.
The partnership follows the publication of a Lemos&Crane report, Belief and Belonging, about the role of Catholic chaplains for Catholic prisoners. That report, which was released in April, found that being able to attend Mass helped Catholic prisoners to cope better with their time in jail. It added that around a quarter of Catholic prisoners had at some point faced problems getting to Mass or engaging with chaplains, sometimes simply because there was no one to escort them to the chapel.