BACK IN 2004 the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales issued a very important teaching document, one of the most impressive documents of this kind to come from any of the churches in this country in recent years, the product both of deep theological reflection and of the experience of those engaged in what is probably the most difficult area of pastoral ministry. It was about prisons in Britain and it was called A Place of Redemption. We had an evening study session about it here in the parish. The Foreword to the book is written by our own Archbishop Peter Smith. The phrase ‘A Place of Redemption’ was coined by St John Paul II. You can download the document without charge from the Bishops’ Conference website – click here.
Today is Prisoners’ Sunday and it is a good time to remind ourselves of what the bishops wrote, partly because the critical situation they addressed then has not improved; indeed many things have got worse. One thing we do on Prisoners’ Sunday is to ask you to give money, so as usual there will be a second collection on this Sunday for the Christian charity known as PACT, the Prisoners Advice and Care Trust. This ecumenical group was set up in 2001 with the merger of The Bourne Trust (founded by Cardinal Bourne) and the Prisoners’ Wives and Families’ Society. It exists to provide welfare and other services for prisoners and their families (such as facilities in visitors’ centres) – see the PACT website for more details.
Sometimes it is said that the Church in its moral teaching about society should simply announce general principles and allow politicians and other policy makers to formulate specific policies. Advocates of this view are either Christian politicians who simply want to be able to do what they like without any sense of accountability to the Church, or Christians who want a quiet life, one in which the Church won’t offend or upset politicians or journalists. The Place of Redemption like many other documents, shows that this is never the Catholic way.
For the document says a great deal about the basic principles of Christian teaching, in particular the dignity and rights of every human person created in the image of God and the biblical concepts of Justice and Mercy, drawing further on the teachings of John Paul II. Above all the book stresses that everyone, whatever crimes he or she has committed, can be redeemed: ‘The human being is never a closed or determined entity. There is a proper freedom which belongs to each of us, which is the source of our moral status, our creativity and is also the grounds of our responsibility to God, ourselves and to other human beings.’ (section 113).
But at the same time the bishops are not afraid of courting controversy by making a number of specific policy recommendations, such as greater transparency in sentencing to show concern for victims, better support for the victims of crime, proper work and education in prison, better arrangements for work and education in prison, more drug rehabilitation and behavioural treatment programmes, the restoration of the right to vote to convicted prisoners, a reduction in the numbers of women sentenced to prison for trivial offences, better conditions for prison staff, changes to sentencing policy to ensure that fewer people are sent to prison, and more use of effective non-custodial sentences within the community.
Not much seems to have got better in thirteen years: people haven’t listened to the Church. Please pray for prisoners, their victims, their families, prison chaplains and other prison staff.