Letters - 30 October 2020

From Prisons Week to Who's who

Prisons Week

What thoughts come up when you turn your mind to prison and prisoners? Maybe you joined with Prisons Week prayers recently, which include victims of crime.

As someone with a long connection with prisons (from tutor in 1980s, then spells working with the prison service, to attending a Quaker Meeting in a high security prison) let me share my insight with you. 

Few of us have had childhoods as difficult as the majority of people in custody. Many grew up in care or/and experienced violence at home. However challenging their backgrounds and crimes, these should not be the only things that define their future lives. In our Quaker group, I see men looking for ways to contribute – staying behind to push desks back into place, scrambling onto a table to open a window, handing round refreshments.

Frequently one hears of lives turned around by positive interactions with teaching or uniformed staff to which the prisoner is longing to respond – some then train to help their peers as listeners or mentors.

Only recently we read in the Friend of convicted young men keen to volunteer in a community venture. So, spare some time to uphold the occupants of this hidden world, currently down to 79,175. During the pandemic, most have been confined to a small room for twenty-three hours a day – they know the real meaning of ‘lockdown’.

Melanie Jameson,
Co-clerk of Quakers in Criminal Justice

Light out of darkness

Writing about whole-life terms, Max Evens reminds us in his letter (9 October) of a quote from the Quaker classic Six Quakers look at crime and punishment: ‘Only the finest individuals are ennobled by suffering. And, by definition, they have no place in prison.’

I wonder how other Friends feel about this. In my experience dealing with prisoners on death row in the US and also in prisons in this country, I would question this statement.

I have come across prisoners who have undergone profound spiritual transformation as a direct result of incarceration. I have seen young men on the margins of society make something of their lives against the odds while under sentence of death. In LifeLines we have been continually astounded by the qualities that prisoners are able to discover in themselves and to share in their letters. Time after time I have marvelled at the lack of bitterness with which exonerees emerge from their utterly dehumanising experience.

Such responses are not invariable but sufficiently frequent to suggest that intense deprivation can bring the best out in people. It is something we also see in relation to other forms of loss, such as the loss of loved ones, health and employment. Light can come out of the darkness.

Otherwise, I would wholly agree with Max that whole-life terms are an abomination. I remember once asking a group of serious offenders in this country whether they would regard life without parole as a step up from the death penalty. One of the inmates summed up the general feeling when he exclaimed ‘But that would be living entombment!’

Jan Arriens

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