St. Leonard - Patron Saint of Prisoners
Thorpe church, November 7th 2004
Jesus, in the reading we heard earlier from the Gospel of St. Matthew, urged his followers to visit those in prison. In both of my last two parishes I visited parishioners in prison – two men whom I’d got to know before they were convicted of crimes they had committed. I therefore saw inside Brixton prison; also Wandsworth, and High Down prison in Surrey. Depressing places, as you would imagine: Brixton and Wandsworth were Victorian, understandably grim and severe; High Down was a modern building but perhaps the one where the tension and anger among the prisoners was most noticeable, for some reason. Previously, as part of my training for ordination, I had spent several days with the chaplaincy at Hollesley Bay youth custody centre in Suffolk – an open prison for young offenders.
Perhaps the most important result of these experiences of prisons and prisoners, for me, is that one soon becomes very aware of the fine balance which needs to be struck, in a prison, between making the regime harsh enough to be a suitable punishment, and helping the prisoners to find ways of learning how to reform – how to lead a more constructive and crime-free life. It is all too easy for those involved in prison work, in whatever way, to neglect the second of these. It is far more difficult to combine firmness with looking for means of helping prisoners to reform, than operate a prison which merely punishes prisoners for what they have done.
But remember the insight of those prison reformers like Jeremy Bentham and John Howard, whom I mentioned earlier – that there is the potential for good in everyone. The two men I visited in prison in London were mixed up, confused, and they had done things they regretted – in one case addiction to drugs had led him into crime. They both had families, and were acutely aware of the effect their crimes had had on their children. The teenagers I talked to in Hollesley Bay were largely lacking in direction, often their family backgrounds had been disastrous – and they were very anxious to find a way out of the mess their lives were in.
Of course there are also hardened criminals who know exactly what they are doing when committing a crime, and have no apparent desire whatsoever of leading a better life. Prison is something you risk, and you’re unlucky if you get caught. But surely we should not abandon the hope that even such people have another side to them – that at some point in their lives, they may see that there is another way.
The first part of our Christian response, then, to prisons and prisoners, should be to support those who focus on the good in people, and not merely on the bad – the prison chaplains, groups like the Howard League for Penal Reform which I mentioned earlier, and those who give of their time to visit prisoners as part of the prison visiting scheme. This isn’t a matter of being soft – it’s a matter of not giving up on people, just as God never gives up hope that a person will make a fresh start.
The second part of our Christian response, however, is to remember those around the world who are imprisoned partly or wholly as a result of their Christian faith. We have just glimpsed something of the courage of two well-known figures whose faith in God was deepened as a result of their time in prison – Terry Waite and Alexander Solzhenytsin. There many other Christians around the world, even today, whose plight is less well known. Christians do not now tend to be imprisoned for their faith in Russia, but there are those in China and various other countries where persecution has led to imprisonment. Saudi Arabia prohibits Christian activities, for example; the government of North Korea has confiscated around 2,000 churches over the years and Christians face imprisonment and torture – as many as 400 Christians are thought to have been executed in recent years. ( A study released by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in April 2002 found that approximately 6,000 Christians are currently incarcerated in Prison Number 15 in northern North Korea. These men and women are treated far worse than other prisoners—often they are given the most dangerous jobs in the prison factories. Christian prisoners are being killed for refusing to renounce their religious beliefs).
Since our church is dedicated to the patron saint of prisoners, I would like to suggest that we might try to develop some kind of response to the needs of prisoners. This might involve making ourselves aware, as a church, of the situation of Christian prisoners around the world, and praying for them – there is information about this on the internet. We might make ourselves more aware of the situation of prisoners and penal issues in our own country, perhaps with the help of prison chaplains in our area. I propose that we follow this up initially with a discussion in the church council.
I have offered you quite a lot of material for thought, reflection and prayer today, as we celebrate the feast day of our patron saint. I hope that some seeds have been sown. Let us keep a brief time of silence as we commend to God all that we have heard, and ask Him to guide us as we seek to do his will in our response.
Additional material on prisons and prisoners
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