Church and Prison

The popular meaning of ‘prison’ is a place of confinement to which convicted people are sent as punishment for a crime they have committed. There are, of course, wider philosophical definitions that include mental conditions of confinement or restrictions, for example: being imprisoned or captivated by a harmful and undesirable habit or practice. We can make a distinction too between jail and prison: the first describing being confined pre-trial, and the latter as confinement after conviction. However defined, prison alludes to a loss or curtailment of liberty or ability to live freely according to the dictates of one’s free will.

Growing up, my religious and spiritual context had popular biblical stories about prison. Two come to mind. First is in Isaiah 61:1, repeated or paraphrased in Luke 4.18, which speaks of ‘proclaiming liberty to captives and opening of the prison to them that are bound’. This concept of freeing imprisoned people is set as a central mission of God in Jesus, following to being an expressed will of God’s salvific will in the world. I suggest, however, that the point in Scripture is not that people should not be punished for crimes committed, rather that people unjustly imprisoned should receive justice and be freed. Taking on this mission of giving ‘liberty to captives’ is a sign of the Spirit of God at work in us – individually and as the people of God. Reflecting on those imprisoned unjustly, we quickly come to our context, where it has been shown in several reports that UK Minority Ethnic people, particularly UK African and Caribbean people, receive longer sentences than the UK White Ethnic Majority. We ignore this injustice at our peril. 

A second popular narrative in my faith community is that found in Acts 16, where the followers of Jesus, Paul, and Silas, miraculous escaped by divine intervention after being put in jail for preaching the Gospel. Even before they were brought to trial, the angels of God loosed their chains and set them free – to the astonishment of the guards tasked with ensuring they were brought before the courts and punished.

This was understood mostly as depicting that if one were persecuted for preaching the Gospel of Jesus, they could expect divine intervention to free them. Alas, there are other texts that clearly show not everyone so jailed or imprisoned received divine intervention to free them, some were killed without mercy, leaving us with theological questions about the ways of God and the complex outcomes between God, the imprisoned, and the community of faith and non-faith.

To suggest that the prisoner is always freed is to be disingenuous to historic and contemporary experience.

As a young pastor, I recall becoming aware of the disproportionate numbers of particularly young Black people caught up in the British prison system. Some speak of a pipeline that starts in school under-performance, leading to activity that engages the police, the criminal justice system, imprisonment, and a life of delinquency. Thankfully, although disproportionately represented in the system, it is a minority of the Black community that travels in this pipeline. My church organised several visits to prisons and youth detention centres – all of which I found deeply depressing, as I engaged with young men whose futures seemed blighted from the start, and resulted in an apparently inevitable blighted end. These were sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, fathers, future partners, whose development as human beings made in the image and likeness of God was seemingly snuffed out. Several we encountered saw no future! One young man in particular, a teenager, told me bluntly: “Don’t bother with me, life is over for me. Talk to the kids and tell them to make sure they don’t end up like me in here.” He was a teenager! Such hopelessness has no place in such a young life.

I saw glimpses of the role of the Church in those visits, as the mothers from the church cooked Caribbean cuisine, and those imprisoned youths ate, drank, talked, and enjoyed something of what community should be and all too often is not, after being interrupted by imprisonment. There have been moments of upsurge in social unrests in the UK, when judges have used long sentences not just as punishment but as a warning to the wider community. Young people, mostly male but female too, were put away and the keys proverbially thrown away. By the time they are freed – if they survive and live – they will be way past their youth, and will almost surely find the adjustment to civvy street impossible. There is a role there for the Church too – plus the role of staying in touch with those in prison during their sentence, through visitation and educational programmes available.

As a Christian, I am a dealer in hope, and this hope must be kept alive. Not in some escapist way, but hope that works hard to bring about a more just Criminal Justice System for everyone, developing strong and sustainable family networks, including the extended biological family as well as faith and religious-spiritual families. Hope gets alongside the vulnerable and strives for change for the better in individual and group prospects. We may not save everyone, but we have a duty to intervene to save as many as we can. Fatalism is our enemy here, since throwing our hands up in the air or resorting to phrases like, “Brethren, all we can do is pray,” will not help. Scripture says hope makes us not ashamed – provided we understand hope as a verb! We have lost too many to premature deaths, too many to blighted lives of imprisonment, too many to hopelessness.

It is a startling reality that UK Black-minority communities’ experience finds parallels with dark-skinned minorities in White-majority countries around the globe. For example, in the USA, African Americans represent approximately 14% of the overall population, yet makeup over a third of the prison population. In the UK, we find similar statistics with the UK Minority Ethnic population at 14%, while making up 25% of the prison population. It appears that systemic racism that inferiorises dark-skinned people in White-majority spaces is an enduring facet of today’s context. How we together tackle this phenomenon is a challenge society at large faces, and internationally. This conversation is one the Church must understand as a role to play in setting at liberty those who are bound up in prison and elsewhere.

There are signs that we are considering these matters. As I write, individuals and groups – religious and secular – are engaged in creative interventions. Some are actively encouraging youth development through mentorship into better education and entrepreneurship. There is increased boldness in projecting the value in a child’s development in having two parents bringing them up, with the security that provides informative years. Where there are not two parents, the wider family network has roles to play. There is greater political activism towards challenging the workings of the Criminal Justice System, to ensure people are treated fairer, not on the basis of the colour of their skin. Active involvement by our community in all strata of society will also provide the ‘leaven in the dough’ that western societies, including the UK, badly needs to bring greater cross-ethnic fairness and justice. Prevention is better than cure, the old saying goes, and as we work at building stronger and more resilient individuals and communities, I believe we will be less negatively affected by unfavourable systems in society.

Finally, the Church will never deliver as much as some demand of it, but it can do more than it does in the area of setting at liberty those who are bound. A major obstacle in this and other areas is that the church is hugely diverse in terms of denominationalism and religious ideological streams. We urgently must utilise the ecumenical and para-church agencies that already exist to make joined-up working more of a reality. Diversity is actually a strength, but as Scripture reminds us, ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’.

I was encouraged recently by a project in Birmingham between two local churches of different denominations that historically would not mix but had come together to provide a place of respite for people just coming out of prison, who could get advice and help at the intersection of incarceration and freedom. We need more joined-up working across the community to make a dent in the revolving door that is recidivism. Our strength is in our unity that makes diversity work for the greater good. Those who commit crimes, those who go to prison, the victims of crime, families… all of us are part of one big community. We have a human as well as a religious responsibility to support each other in whatever situation we find ourselves. So, as we consider the relationship between church and prison, I pray and work for fairer societal systems, stronger individuals, stronger families, better education, greater social, economic, and political involvement, and community healing across ethnic and religious diversity. Set the captives free, wherever they are and whoever they are!

Rev Dr. Joe Aldred

National Church Leaders Forum; Windrush Cross-Government Working Group; Honorary Research Fellow, Roehampton University 

Written by: Rev Dr. Joe Aldred

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