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.
To find our more about ways to help prisoners, their families, or ex-offenders, see:
Prison Fellowship International (which runs the Sycamore Tree Project)