This is Prisoners Week – and I attended the National Launch Service last night in Dunblane Cathedral.
I listened to the list of Scottish Prisons being read out and wondered how this society could possibly need so many. Former Inspector of Prisons, Andrew McLellan commented that 27000 children in Scotland have a parent in prison. It’s an extraordinary statistic.
I’ll visit Perth Prison this week. In case you haven’t seen it, it is a huge building. Last time I was there, there were over 700 prisoners. I go because I think it should be a pastoral priority and because I want to support the Chaplains.
My involvement with Prisons goes back a while. In the mid ’80’s, I was a member of the Board of Visitors at Crumlin Road Prison in Belfast. At that time it was a remand prison. It was an extraordinary experience – I remember going into the Exercise Yard with other members of the Board of Visitors and simply waiting to see who would come to talk to us. That was of course wasn’t quite what it sounds like – because the paramilitary prisoners had their own command structure through which they dealt with the prison authorities and with us.
I also had the experience of visiting the Maze Prison – Long Kesh – shortly before the end of Internment. And I was a regular visitor there and at the neighbouring and modern Maghaberry Prison when my parishioners were ‘inside’
What do I remember? I remember greyness, barbed wire, interview rooms with no handle on the inside of the door through which I had just entered. I remember misery and desolation – but also optimism and hope. I remember prison staff who tried hard in near-impossible circumstances to create a humane environment and to go beyond the ‘turn key’ mentality. Prisoners Week is a way of reminding people about our prisons – about prisoners and their families, about prison staff and Chaplains. If you are fortunate enough not to be involved with any of that, it’s too easy to forget that it is there.
But in the end I wonder about it all. I know that there are obviously people from whom society needs to be protected. But our aim must surely be redemption and restoration …