As part of a local programme initiated by the Columban Missionaries of Britain, I was delighted to have the opportunity to take colleagues to sing Christmas carols to a group of around 20 prisoners and their families during a family contact day. Prisoners must apply to see their families on this day and we were told that although about 20 prisoners were granted contact, over 60 prisoners would have applied for this privilege.
Before the visit took place, I felt curious about the prisoners and the prison conditions more than anything else. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the prisoners are just ordinary people, people like me and you but who have made some wrong decisions for which they are now doing time for as a result of their actions. I watched the men sit excitedly in their allocated area waiting for their family members to come through the door. I thought of them not as criminals doing time but as a brother, a husband, a father waiting to see a loved one.
After a short while my thoughts turned from the prisoners to their families. How must they be feeling? How did they feel waking up this morning? How will they feel after their visit today? What about the children, do they understand why their loved one is imprisoned and why they are visiting? Over the space of about 90 minutes, I watched the faces of many visitors turn from happiness to sadness and frustration because the precious time they had with their loved one was rapidly drawing to a close. A mother with a 1-week old baby says a tearful farewell to her partner. A son, aged about 9 years old, says goodbye to his Daddy, and a mother through tears, says goodbye to her young son. All of them must have been feeling a mixture of emotions and feeling under pressure not to show any of them because of the effect that could have on their loved one who would soon be back in their cell with 4 walls and their own thoughts to occupy them.
It was after this experience that I realised that all the prisoners have a story and so do their families. I saw men holding on to the little dignity they had and their families bravely putting on a dignified and supportive front. It made me think about what we must teach our children about dignity. There is no dignity in teaching children to look from the outside in and to judge. Growing up in a world where the media so easily makes up lies to sell stories for money, children are so easily led to believe that men and women in prison are bad and therefore their families, by association, are bad too.
What does dignity of the human person mean to us? We must be so careful not to unconsciously teach children to cast judgements on others or to make sweeping statements because of a person’s situation. Children need to know that prison sentences do not determine their fate; this job is in fact Christ’s on the day of judgement.
James Trewby works with students and educators across Britain to raise awareness of justice, peace and the integrity of creation. Besides introducing children, young people and educators to Laudato Si’ through engaging and creative activities, James has helped to tackle misconceptions and discrimination of those in the British justice system. For further information about work to promote justice and peace education, please email him on firstname.lastname@example.org.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”