No matter what you hear, prisons are not nice or easy places to be in. TV and media, for their own reasons, like to tell us that the prisoners have it easy: TV in their cells, plenty of food, sport and the like. The reality is very different, mostly people are locked up for 23 hours for most of the day, brief exercise visits, occasional classes. Many in prison have mental illness. The threat of violence is ever present, often those who are weaker are targets and in the greatest danger. There is an epidemic of drugs sometimes, the strongest and hardest.
The over-arching idea in prisons is containment or punishment. Although there are classes of all sorts – rehabilitation seems at best difficult. There is a very high return to prison of prisoners, often it is like a revolving door.
One of the most pressing things in society at the moment should be prison reform. Money should be put into reforming the prison system. Prisons should not be inhumane places. Prisoners should not be caged like wild animals. There are many people, because of mental illness, should not be in prison, it is the last place they should be in. Many enter with serious addictions; some who didn’t have an addiction leave the prison with serious addictions. The buildings are often 19th Century buildings, barely able to cope with 21st century prisoners. They are often overcrowded places.
People very often leave prison greatly damaged, mentally and spiritually. People very often leave prison with no money and nowhere to go. It is any surprise that there is a cycle of violence and crime , that sees them barely out of prison and then back in again.
The prophet Jeremiah in the reading of Mass ends up in prison. His crime is that he tells the people what they don’t want to hear, he is accused of demoralising the soldiers who are left in the city. His prison ends up being in a well. This cell is very small, dark, wet and miserable as many cells turn out to be. And in that cell he experiences what many people in prison experience, despair and abandonment. Searing human experiences. In the end there is some hope for Jeremiah, someone comes and pleads on his behalf and he set free, he sees the light of day, he breathes fresh air.
St Luke in his Gospel tells us that those early Christians were treated like criminals. They were cast out by mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. They knew that sense of abandonment, that cold shoulder. They were no allowed in their synagogues, not allowed in their homes, they were not allowed to be spoken to be others. They were to be treated like common criminals, outcasts and to be surrounded by a wall of silence.
You will remember that St Peter and St Paul were put in prison, dark prisons where they were put in chains. This also was the fate of others at that same time and many others who would follow them in different times. Prisons were often the places that Christians found themselves in.
I suppose it is the very nature of our Christian lives to believe that people can be saved from prison., That people can be set free. That like Jeremiah, there is a way out. There is someone t intercede fr=or them, someone that can be sent with ropes to draw you out if the abyss. That there is salvation, that there is a new life. That the punishment can be cancelled. That there is forgiveness and redemption. Is this not the language that the first Christians use, he cancels the debt, sets people free, breaks the chains.
These are surely not overly idealistic dreams. These should be the end to which prisons, not solely to punish, to lock up and throw the key away. They should be places where people start again, have hope, re-build their lives. Not be places of human torture, as so iften prisons are throughout the world. Places where you could lose your life in every way.
You know there is a high incidence of suicide in prisons that very often goes unreported and uncommented on. This is a complete failure if the system, if only one young man or woman takes their life.
In a sense we are all in prison. The very mystery if the Christian life is tha Christ comes to set us free. He comes to open the gates, comes to unlock the chains, comes to set us free. There are many more types if prisons that those that have walls and gates and locks in them.