Vocation to Love, part 8: ‘Remember those in prison’

Filed in Ethics by on October 10, 2014 2 Comments

Yesterday I was introduced to Zac. Zacchaeus to you, the chap who is up the Jericho Tree. But he’s ‘Zac’ to the thousands of participants on the Sycamore Tree course. You see, it’s easier for prisoners to remember his nickname. The Sycamore Tree project enables them to make Zac’s story their own, as they learn to acknowledge their crime, to understand the experience of their victims, to make reparation and to seek reconciliation. The technical name for this is ‘restorative justice’.

I learned about the Sycamore Tree project during a course-cum-retreat for people who work in prisons – chaplains and volunteers. If you want to see vocation in action, these are your people. They live out Pope Francis’ exhortation to reach out to the marginalised. In our overcrowded, understaffed, often chaotic, jails, they offer oases of calm and kindness, faithfulness and security, to men and women who have often suffered themselves even more than they have inflicted on others. They represent Christ, they represent all of us, the Body of Christ, in these dark and neglected places.

But the prisoners are not just their problem. They are our problem – or rather, they too are a part of our communities, members of our parishes. Unlike many of the baptised, they don’t choose not to be at the ordinary parish Mass! It is a part of our vocation, collectively and individually, to remember them. At the very least, we can do this in prayer. But for some of us – for some of you – it could also be a part of your Christian vocation to help them in practical ways. Volunteers are urgently needed – for tasks as little as sending a card or buying Christmas present for a prisoner to give to his child, and also for bigger commitments such as regular visiting, supporting families or ex-offenders, engaging in the process of restorative justice. Simply informing yourself of some basic facts is a Christian act. Did you know, for example, that about 200,000 children in England and Wales have a parent in jail? Or that there are about 12,000 people in prison who have not yet even been tried? Or that the majority of those in jail are there for non-violent offences?

Our prisons are indeed overcrowded and understaffed. But it is not all bad news. The one great success of recent years is a dramatic reduction in the numbers of young offenders who are imprisoned. This is due to a range of imaginative measures in which restorative justice plays an important part. Here again, there is a role for volunteers.

This week is Prisoners’ Week – the bishops have brought it forward this year. ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ The original Zac turned his life around because he encountered Our Lord. The Zacs of today can only relive his story if the Body of Christ goes out to meet them. But Christ has no eyes, no hands, no voice, but ours.

Click here to see other ‘Vocation to Love’ articles in this series by Sr Margaret.

To find our more about ways to help prisoners, their families, or ex-offenders, see:

The Prison Advice and Care Trust

Prison Fellowship International (which runs the Sycamore Tree Project)

Caring for Ex-Offenders

The Prison Reform Trust

The Howard League for Penal Reform

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Sr Margaret Atkins

About the Author ()

Sr Margaret is an Augustinian canoness from the community at Boarbank Hall in Cumbria. She is also a Research Fellow at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Comments (2)

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  1. John says:

    I am a priest who worked in three prisons in England during my ministry. It was very demanding yet rewarding work. During those years I had to deal with three suicides of young men. This meant informing their loved ones , conducting their funerals and counselling staff and inmates of the prison. These were very traumatic experiences for all involved but, as usual, there was no aftercare for me as the Chaplain. I just had to get on with life back in my Parish, as if nothing untoward had happened facing questions from parishioners as to why I was not in a good mood etc.
    I also spent four months in Prison as an inmate after suffering from depression and loneliness and becoming entrapped by images on the internet. I thank God that I survived inside and was able to minister to the men I shared my life with during that time. I am sorry to say that the Church has failed to show me compassion, forgiveness or friendship since I came out of prison.. When I say the Church I do not mean the Laity who have been a wonderful example of Christs love. I mean the official Diocesan church who have shunned me and treated me like an outcast. I feel sure that my priestly experiences before and after my time in prison have given me a unique insight into sin and forgiveness, but, as I am at present suspended from priestly ministry and have been for over three years now I cannot share those experiences for the benefit of the Church.
    Let me finish by saying that there are many good people and priests who do so much to help those inside prison and I hope that many more will come forward after Prisoners Week to take up the Prison Ministry.
    “I was in Prison and you never came to see me………….”

    • Sr Margaret Atkins says:

      Dear John,

      Thank you so much for your courage in sharing your experience. I am so grateful to our chaplains for carrying such heavy emotiona burdens on behalf of those they care for, often at enormous personal cost. And I am so aware of how justified are your comments about our institutional lack of forgiveness for certain kinds of offence – and I am deeply sorry for this, and would give a lot to be able to change it. I should also be grateful personally for the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom that someone with your experience is able to share with the rest of us. There is much more I should like to say – and if you would like to continue this conversation more privately, please do contact me via the Boarbank Hall website.

      With sympathy and prayers, Sr Margaret.

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