Prisons … again

Stuart Horner is a lifer serving a minimum sentence of 27 years for murdering his uncle. He recently spent about 60 hours protesting on the roof of HM Prison, Manchester, in a T-shirt bearing the message: “It’s not 1990, tell the government we’ve all had enough, sort the whole system”.

He was just 10 at the time of the 1990 Strangeways prison riot – the biggest the UK system had ever seen. Someone must have told him about it. The prison may since have changed its name but, evidently, not all its practices.

I wondered if Horner had read, let alone been reassured by, the justice secretary, Michael Gove’s July speech entitled, “The Treasure in the Heart of Man –  Making Prisons Work”.

It’s a fine, passionate, almost sermonic, speech. Matthew’s gospel gets a mention. Churchill is cited – there should be “a constant heart searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every man”.

Christians are certainly under no illusions about the human heart condition. But the prison system is at breaking point – more overcrowded, more dangerous, less staffed, more squalid than ever – and that despite the efforts, professionalism and humanity of most governors and prison officers. 76% of prisoners reported staff treated them with respect – an impressive figure, but with alarming re-offending rates the public is receiving a poor return on the £37,000 an average prison place costs the taxpayer annually. Prison is expensive – and so is crime caused by all those who re-offend.

Who could disagree with Gove? “Prison is a place where people are sent as punishment, not for further punishments. And if we ensure that prisons are calm, orderly, purposeful places where offenders can learn the self-discipline, the skills and the habits which will prepare them for outside life then we can all benefit”. Amen to that.

Crime produces victims. But many of those who get convicted – invariably for having made bad choices – are victims too.  As I eye them in the dock day after day, I need to remember these are people not commodities – immortals for whom Christ died.

The gospel is always about transformation. The church has a credible record in prison ministry with some staggering results.  Yet there is still so much more we can do in outreach, mentoring, life skill training, ex-prisoner accommodation and employment.

The next time you get your shoes mended or a key cut in Timpsons, reflect that 16 of the company’s managers have been to prison and that of the 400 former inmates it has employed in total, only seven have reoffended. That’s how it works!

The transformative power of the gospel is often most starkly demonstrated in the lives of those who have fallen the furthest and have the most to gain.  Such were surely some of us. God can always change lives for the better…..even in prisons.

David Turner

His Honour Judge David Turner QC is a Circuit Judge based in London.


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