I have only once ever visited a prison. The thing which most struck me about this visit was how familiar the prisoners’ faces seemed. I did not know any of them personally but I felt I could have known them all. They could easily be my friends or my family. In fact, they could be me had my life been other than it was, had my circumstances been different and as a result faced me with a more difficult set of challenges.
Prisoners are spending up to 90% of their day in their cells. These ordinary people whose lives have gone terribly wrong, and who may well have done terrible things, are experiencing the effects of Covid-19 with even greater intensity than many of us. Sometimes the effects are exacerbated by the company of another person, because some prisoners are also enduring ‘doubling up’ arrangements whereby they not only share a space, but eat often with an uncovered toilet within feet of where they are sitting. On the other hand, if they are alone in their cell, most of their day will be spent deciding when to sit on the bed and when to sit on the chair. Family visits have been stopped, physical exercise severely curtailed and the usual mental health services available for those soon to be released have all but ceased, the latter often resulting in re-offence and a speedy return to prison by ex-offenders.
There is probably very little that the prison authorities can do about all of this, given the need to keep prisoners safe from Covid. Here it is worth noting that up to 2000 prisoners in England and Wales could have died by now if these additional strictures had not been put in place. So this unhappy situation seems pretty unavoidable.
But there is something the rest of us can do, as we experience a very minor version of the kind of confinement prisoners are enduring right now.
In times of loneliness, boredom, loss and separation from those we love, we can be in solidarity with prisoners. Solidarity, as the word suggests, means being solidly present to those who are going through a worse version of what we are currently experiencing as a result of lockdown restrictions. In the case of prisoners, this also requires something more of us. It requires that we engage in this solidarity without judging or pre-judging the people we are thinking about, always mindful of the fact that were it not for circumstances, temperament and the grace of God, we might be there ourselves.
If we can get ourselves into this mindset in regard to prisoners it will take us to a different and quite surprising place in regard to how we think of ourselves, especially those aspects of ourselves, or memories, of which we are perhaps secretly ashamed. If we can be in solidarity with prisoners and make even the smallest allowance for them and for what they have done with their lives, we may find, to our amazement, that something within us, some inner voice or presence, is giving us permission to let go of whatever secret it is that we are ashamed of.
It’s tempting, of course, to refuse to let go. It’s often easier to continue to beat ourselves up privately about whatever it is we’re ashamed of as a way of perhaps ‘purging’ the moment itself in the hope that this will somehow lead to our forgetting it altogether. We are wasting our time. The idea that forgiveness and forgetting go together, especially regarding something that has caused real damage to another human being, is a myth and most of us know that. So how does being in solidarity with prisoners help us in dealing with our own need to forgive and be forgiven, while still remembering what happened?
It helps because being in solidarity with someone who is suffering has nothing to do with sympathy, or even with vaguely religious talk of compassion. It has to do with a sense of belonging with them in it. We belong with prisoners because we share in their humanity and thus could quite easily be in the position they are in. So we can be grateful for that. I am not talking about the gratitude of the Pharisee (the man in the gospel [Luke 18:9-14] who thanked God that he was not like the miserable tax collector who didn’t know how to pray properly or keep God’s holy Law, as he did) but the humble gratitude that these prisoners afford us in allowing us the chance to love them and ourselves in sincerity and truth.
To love in sincerity and truth is to strip away all pretence and self-delusion. It is also the source of immense freedom. The Pharisee in the story I have just referred to was anything but free. He was bound by laws, protocols and prescribed ways of speaking to God. There was nothing wrong with these laws and customs. It was just that he believed himself to be in a good place in all of this, thanks to his own upright character and hard work. But he did not know freedom.
The prisoners in any number of gaols here and elsewhere have been deprived of their personal and physical freedom. They cannot relate easily to those they love and they are not free to leave their cells for 90% of the day. But they might begin to experience real freedom if they know that we are standing with them in mind and spirit, if not in body, if we are praying with them, and not just for them. This is not an easy thing to do because many of the people who are in prison have committed terrible crimes and it is hard to feel sorry for them, or even to pray for them. But we are not called to feel sorry for them. We are called to be in solidarity with them, remembering that at one time or another in our lives we have known the kind of feelings they may still know, and which may have led them to do the things they did.
As Christians, we know that we cannot do this work of prayerful solidarity on our own, so we look to the One who is already in solidarity with us and claim the grace that is offered to us to do it. Sometimes we use words to help us to do the claiming, and to claim the freedom of spirit we want prisoners to know. But it’s even better if we can dispense with words altogether, especially when they inhibit our own freedom to love and to surrender the wrongs done to us, while still remembering the pain. Sometimes words literally fail us, but it’s when words fail us that the work of prayer and solidarity truly begins.