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PRISONS WEEK 1 Cor 1:1-9; Luke 15:11-24

Wendy Carey, whom many of you know, and who started her preaching ministry in this church, recently spoke at an Interfaith meeting about her work and the work of prison chaplaincy in this country. It was an enlightening and positive talk.

Prisoners' Week began in England and Wales in 1975. The Prisoners’ Week Committee, consisting of Prison Chaplains and other Christians involved in work with prisoners and their families, was formed to encourage prayer within churches and the wider Christian community for the needs of prisoners. This they did by producing each year a prayer and information leaflet for use on the third Sunday in November, designated Prisoners’ Sunday, with the week observed until the following Saturday. It had its beginnings as a Roman Catholic initiative by Bishop Victor Guazzelli, but quickly gained ecumenical support and became an ecumenical observance, receiving the patronage of the Archbishops of Canterbury & Westminster and the Moderator of the Free Churches Group.
In 1995, seeking to focus attention, not only on the needs of prisoners but on all those involved in the field of prison care, prisoners families, victims of crime, prison staff and many volunteers, the week became known as Prisons Week. The primary aim of the week remains unchanged, that is to pray for and raise awareness of the needs of prisoners and their families, victims of offenders, prisons staff and all those who care.

Parable of the Prodigal Son
An Australian judge who jailed two drug smugglers for ten years has been found not guilty of distorting justice by falling asleep at their trial. The smugglers claimed Judge Ian Dodd's snoring had distracted witnesses, but the criminal appeal court, in New South Wales ruled that "a judge being constantly attentive is not a fundamental requirement." Sometimes it is not easy for the poor old man on the bench! The father in today’s parable was anything but sleepy. Every day he looked for the return of his beloved younger son who went away with his inheritance and seemed lost or maybe even dead.

There are a number of things in this parable that reflect the subject of prisons week when we consider these things together. Jesus told how the younger son took his inheritance and squandered it in dissolute living. When he had spent all he had and a famine came to the land where he had gone, he became destitute and it was at that point that he came to himself. He resolved to return to his father who was overjoyed and said that his son was dead but was now alive again, was lost and had now been found. We can think how the progress of someone slipping into crime may be similar. Many who commit crime are not as lucky as the son and often the roots of crime can be in poverty, lack of education or a deprived social background. Each individual criminal, in a way, is squandering who they are as a human, wasting their potential to lead a fulfilling life. Sometimes it may be a question of being sinned against more than actually sinning, but whichever way, it is a life that is being wasted. When the law catches up with them and they end up in prison, it is an opportunity for them to come to themselves. It can be a time when the truth of what has happened can begin to sink in to that person, a time when they stop denying what they have really done and begin to hope for a better future. Whilst prison is meant as punishment for crime and protection for the public, it is also meant as rehabilitation for offenders. It is time for amendment of life, as we would put it in Christian language.

Prison Chaplaincy
In recent times government has been putting more resources into prison chaplaincy. The chaplaincy team can have a key role in helping the prisoner regain some sense of being human – both by recognising and encouraging their own spirituality, as well as providing personal support, for instance, in maintaining the prisoner’s links with their background community or family. Religious faith is recognised as having a socialising, improving influence, and each inmate is given the opportunity to identify which faith they wish to be associated with. So, in a way, the work of chaplains can be rather like the prodigal’s father, who searched for a lost soul, kept believing that his son would rediscover his humanity, and when his son finally returned, accepted him back for who he was, a real person. That is not to say that crime is ignored and punishment softened, but it is to say that a chaplain may help a prisoner rediscover his or her own humanity and so have some hope of starting to live a better life. As St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, I give thanks to God for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus. ….He will strengthen you that you may be blameless…”

Older brother mentality
These are sensitive issues, full of competing interests and the need for a right balance. In recent times, however, the prison population has soared. England has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Western Europe. In 1997 there were 60,000 in prison, and now it is 80,000. This is due mainly to sentences being longer. We are aware of over-stretched resources as well as alarming rates of crime, but are the public attitude, the media and government response rather more akin to the prodigal’s elder brother? The older brother was resentful when his dissolute younger brother returned and he would not join the party. He felt the younger son did not deserve to be treated so well – he should suffer for what he did, and the older son felt his father hadn’t been fair.

There are many different parties involved and affected by crime, criminals and what a civilised society does about these things. Think of the authorities who are responsible for making and keeping laws, providing a prison service, a system of justice, policing our communities and supporting ex-offenders through probation. Think of victims of crime who sometimes never really recover from traumatic experiences, who suffer as innocents, who need protection and support. Think of the families of offenders who have to endure separation, stigma and often have to struggle in everyday life. Think of the prisoner who may come to regret what they have done, suffer anxiety about their life and who often have educational, psychological or social needs lying behind the crimes they have committed. Justice must be done, but civilised society also tempers justice with mercy for the sake of humanity.

Thinking spiritually
Looking at prison and prisoners in the light of the parable of the Prodigal Son may be a new approach with which you do not necessarily agree. But when we reflect on the parable in a more conventional way, we may begin to see that there is some sense in looking at it in this way. Our spiritual beliefs are symbolised in this parable in the following ways. Just as the younger son went far away from his father, so the individual soul can move a long way from God. Sometimes it is through dissolute living – simply living for good times in a selfish and heedless way. But sometimes even those who may appear respectable can travel a long way from God through submerged anger, resentfulness, bitterness or even just unending business. In Christian life there are times when we end up at a low ebb, like the runaway son, with nothing left and beginning to realise he was at rock bottom. At such a point we may come to our senses, realising the truth about what we have been like. We may come to ourselves through a tragic event, through some kind of loss or breakdown, through a huge row with someone, or perhaps through an illness or simply feeling so weary that we cannot go on any longer. It is at such a point that the grace of God can come to us in a fresh way, and gradually we begin to open up to hope and a different way of living. In Christian terms this begins the process of repentance and faith, returning to and discovering that God has loved us and accepted us all along.

The loving father
The Christian community as well as many in our society may play the role of the loving father. There are organisations dedicated to making a difference to the lives of those affected by crime and prison. Let me list just a few: Alpha for Prisoners, Action for Prisoners Families, Caring for ex-Offenders, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Fellowship, the Restorative Justice movement and Victim Support. There are many whose souls are lost, either through committing crime, being a victim of crime, or being related to a criminal offender. The father looked out for the return of his son, believing that deep in his son somewhere lived a human soul in need of rediscovering himself, of realising that he must live according to who he really was. The lost son was found again; the son who had died, came back alive.

A Concluding Prayer
Lord, you offer freedom to all people. We pray for those in prison. Break the bonds of fear and isolation that exist. Support with your love prisoners and their families and friends, prison staff and all who care. Heal those who have been wounded by the activities of others, especially the victims of crime. Help us to forgive one another, to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly together with Christ in His strength and in His Spirit, now and every day. Amen.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Heavenly Lord,
you long for the world's salvation:
stir us from apathy,
restrain us from excess
and revive in us new hope
that all creation will one day be healed
in Jesus Christ our Lord.