People think that prisons are easy places to be in, prisoners sitting around swopping stories, watching TV, playing cards – like Fletcher in the comedy Porridge. They like to highlight the so-called luxuries, but the reality is very different. Having been the Catholic Chaplain to the State Hospital for a number of years, I know what it is like. A prison like Barlinnie is not an easy place to be in – the oppressive smell of men trapped up in airless cells and halls, often with limited washing facilities, is overwhelming. The building itself built for Victorian times and in places is literally falling down. Then there are the tensions that run wild between prisoners and wardens, and between prisoners themselves are a constant. And then there are the number of prisoners who have serious mental health problems which is acute, they are contained and not treated, the last place for them should be a prison. Although there are possibilities for classes and learning, not all prisoners are allowed to go. And although there is sport, again not all prisoners get it and into all prisoners are allowed to go.
It is clear that our prison system doesn’t work. It is interested in locking up, punishing but not rehabilitating. The figures of people who return to prison tells its own story. More enlightened and reformed prison systems exist on the continent, but we seem to think we need no change. However, our system looks positively enlightened compared to the Americans and some of the Russian prisons, these are places of great inhumanity and subsequent generations will condemn us for the cruel ways that we lock people up. Prison reform should be at the top of our agenda! In 19th Century there were great prison reform movements and great prisoner reformers – where are they today?
Today in the Gospel Jesus is a prisoner. He also has been taken and found guilty. Like a prisoner he has everything taken from him, they have removed his garments, they take him in chains, they fasten him down as if he is a man to be feared. His keepers inflict beatings and whippings upon him. Like any other prisoner, they have taken away his freedom. They feel free to insult him, to abuse him: the crowd, the soldiers and even the man who is a prisoner along with him.
Today begins the week of prayer for prisoners. The words that they have chosen for this week, the them, is exactly the words of the thief in the Gospel to Jesus – Remember me. Remember me when you come into your kingdom.
We do remember them. We remember those who have done one bad thing and have gone to prison. We remember those young men and women caught up in drugs and drinks who have made a terrible mistake and have been on a terrible road and are now spending what should be their best years behind bars. We remember those who suffer mental illness and have ended up in prison, the last place that they should be. We remember those who through poverty, bad education, narrow life choices who have entered into a cycle of crime. We remember those who are trying to reform their lives, to repay their crimes, to find a way out of a previous life. We remember them.
We say Jesus is King today on this feast. Jesus is King not over an army, a court who fawn over him, nor subjects at his beck and call. He is King of swindlers and tax collectors, he is king of women who have a bad name in the town, he is king over people excluded by their illness from the villages and town, he is king for the thief on the cross; he is the champion of the boy who has gone off the rails, he is the comfort of the man born blind, the child dying of sickness, he is the one who has time for the beggars. His kingdom is different, his people are different, the land that he rules over is different. His people are the poor and lowly.
Christ is a prisoner in the Gospel not a king. He does not wear robes and is not attended by anyone. He knows scorn and rejection as a prisoner does. He knows what it means to be tried and found guilty, innocent though he was. He knows what unjust judgment is like. The charge is written as an inscription on the cross for all to see and in a number of languages so none could mistake it. He is exposed, ridiculed, maligned. And less anyone think he is innocent, in the end he is surrounded by thieves who go to the same fate as him. He has allowed himself to come low, right down low, to accept what humanity means for many people in order to lift it up, lift it up high.
We are of a mind, many of us, to lock the gate and throw away the key. We are of a mind to say that it is the best place for them. Commit the crime, do the time. Jesus words are different – in Matthew 25 he says: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, sick and in prison and you came to see me. It’s at the very heart of his teaching, to come to the aid of those who are in prison. It’s at the very heart of his message to want to break the fetters and let people go free. His way is not to condemn, not to judge, not to show scorn, not to reject – but to save that which was lost.
Prisons are dark places of great loneliness and brokenness. Prisoners need compassion and mercy rather than condemnation. Prisoners need understanding and to be forgiven. They like all of us need another chance.
It’s not by coincidence that the new testament speaks of human beings being locked in a prison. How often we have experienced that, like a place from which we cannot escape, a place that we long to be set free. Does this not create a profound sympathy for others who are physically bound, locked away and closed in prisons which they serve unreal sentences.
The Christian mystery speaks about being set free. At its very heart it is about being released, about breaking the fetters and escaping to breathe fresh air. How we long for the same for all of those who languish in the prisons of the world.