For 20 years, prisoners and ex-prisoners in southern Africa have shared their stories with me, trusting me, in my role as a priest and prison chaplain, with their most personal experiences. This has shown me with brutal clarity how broken the world we live in really is.
No child is born a criminal. Yet the environment in which he or she grows to adulthood can be so dysfunctional and distorting that it twists the soul. Seeking belonging and comfort, and all too often trying and failing to recover from trauma, young people turn to unhealthy peer groups, and sometimes even gangs and drugs. From there, it’s a short step to crime.
Those of us who have not committed a serious crime have often been fortunate: We received the right kind of nurturing, support and guidance from our parents, extended family, neighbours, and through our institutions of education and faith. Can we truly ignore or judge without any empathy those who have chosen to break the laws of society? Because of the suffering that crime causes, it is natural to draw back from criminals, to see them as a class of being that should be shunned and locked up. We tend not to see those who were born into actively criminal families, whose families are broken and dysfunctional, who have had no moral guidance or support, as full human beings.
In his book Sevasadan, Munshi Premchand wrote, “Just as people pick the path of evil in [certain] circumstances, so do they pick the path of good when they are given a chance. If we care, we can reform.”
I felt compelled from within to put down my experiences and insights, and to let others know that those inside our prisons are our own brothers and sisters, many of whom have never experienced the love of a parent. Many of them are victims of poverty, violence and abuse: Young men and women with shattered dreams who turned to drugs to blot out their pain or to feel a sense of belonging – and then to crime to support their habit. Surely these offenders need to be restored in their relationship with families, victims and the community at large.
Crime is often a reflection of the failures of society and state: To provide basic care and nurturing from infancy through childhood, decent education, adequate housing and medical attention, robust and ethical communities, recreational opportunities. So it makes little sense to absolve ourselves of any responsibility to support an offender’s reintegration into the community.
And how can our justice cluster continue to promote more arrests, longer custodial sentences and overcrowded prisons – none of which has the slightest effect on the tide of crime that threatens us all – without adequate and effective corrective interventions?
Correctional services cost the South African taxpayer an estimated R22-billion annually. Would it not make sense to insist on seeing the value for money in the form of effective programmes supporting the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-criminals, with safer communities as the result?
On paper, the state promotes rehabilitation beyond punishment, with the intention of reducing recidivism (re-offending). Yet we have one of the highest rates of recidivism in the world. We are using broken tools to fix a system that is broken to begin with.
Something needs to change. As a missionary of St Francis de Sales, I have long been called to minister to those behind bars, to bring them a message of life and light beyond their immediate circumstances. Jesus’ words are clear: “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36). When I meet a prisoner, I meet a fellow human being, someone with the potential to change the course of their life. As a fellow human being and a Christian, I need to reach out to give them hope and to help them prepare for life beyond crime. Jesus needs our hands, voices and feet to share His light with those in the prison.
St Francis de Sales says, “Compassionate people are slow to judge and condemn others.” By sharing my experiences and the thoughts they have prompted, I devoutly hope to help readers make a paradigm shift: to look at offenders the same way that God, in His infinite mercy and compassion, does.
It is my hope that my memories, thoughts and suggestions will take you on a journey that will change your perception of prisoners, ex-prisoners, prison warders and officials, and all those who work with offenders. My purpose in sharing with you is to show how individuals, if supported and encouraged by their families, spiritual care workers, correctional officers and the greater public, can indeed overcome the stigma, institutionalisation and tendency to return to crime associated with serving a prison sentence.
When our correctional facilities turn into centres of education, spirituality and restorative justice, offenders will have a chance to choose a different life path: To become responsible citizens. When these facilities offer rehabilitation, through skills, personal development and empowerment, they are much less likely to release people back into society who will simply break the law again, feeding the endless miserable cycle of crime and incarceration. DM
Light Through the Bars: Understanding and Rethinking South Africa’s Prisons by Fr Babychan Arackathara. Published by Mercury, Burnet Media. Available in all good bookstores. Recommended Retail Price: R220.
In other news...
July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.
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