Prison Reform

Our History and the Christian Connection

Elizabeth Fry

In a dark, crammed room, the dampness rises like an invisible oppressive enemy, piercing every joint and bone; whilst the foul stench of urine, faeces, dirt and sweat completely overwhelms all senses. Fear replaces sleep, as convicted murderers share this misery alongside petty thieves and children.

Such was a typical English prison in the early 1800s. Severe punishment was the objective. But when Elizabeth Fry – rich banker’s daughter and mother of eleven children – witnessed the prisoner’s plight, she was stirred into action.

Elizabeth was very aware of the teachings of Jesus and was keen to embrace them. Jesus words I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’ were very much a part of her selfless lifestyle.

Fry founded The Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in the Newgate Prison. Its goal was to “provide for the clothing, instruction and employment of the women, introduce them to scriptures and form habits of sobriety, order and industry…rendering them docile and peaceable in prison, and respectable when they leave it”. It was an overwhelming success, arousing government and public interest at the “orderly, disciplined inmates…known for their work ethic”.

Fry shows that ordinary, committed Christians make a difference. Fry and her desire to follow the teachings of Jesus helped instil the practice of prison visiting.

Sadly, churches haven’t kept pace with their prison ministry legacy states Prison Fellowship’s field director, Kevin Maddock. “There were parts in history where prisons had to plead with churches to keep people away,” he says. “There were so many Christians visiting the prisoners and supporting ex-prisoners that the corrections of the day had to plead with the churches to ease up.”

Since those dark periods in prison history, governments have built sanitary prisons, improved standards, treatment, and training. “What more can be done?” many despairingly ask. Yet prison time hasn’t significantly reduced crime, with re-offending rates remaining a significant problem. And, once again, the community’s problem.

A view echoed in a Canadian report on corrections to Parliament. “No penitentiary service can succeed without public participation…the community should participate with the job the prisons are doing, if for no other reason than for its own safety.”

However, change might be on the way.

In his book, More God Less Crime, Byron R Johnson demonstrates and advocates that sacred and secular organisations should work together for the betterment of society.

An evaluation of an Inner Change program, a faith-based (Prison Fellowship USA) prisoner entry program that operated within the Minnesota Correctional Centre, showed an effective lowering of recidivism. The findings also found during the first six years of operation that it produced an estimated saving of US$3 million dollars.

In Chuck Colson’s (Founder of Prison Fellowship USA) experience many inmates have a “negative self-image” characterised by “low self-esteem and excessive self-hate”. In turn, this belief is generalised to the entire world where everyone is viewed as harsh and uncaring – a ‘survival of the fittest or cruellest’ – mentality. Eventually, this becomes the brain’s default setting.

Today, many psychologists agree that changing a person’s thinking involves changing their internal belief system. What do I believe about myself and others? Why am I here? What is wrong and right? How these questions are answered affects the choices made? From the Judeo-Christian view, crime is one manifestation of humanity’s self-centred nature, with little or no thought for others.

Since the ‘Golden Age’ of prison reform, social engineering increasingly viewed crime as a consequence of socio-economic conditions. To reduce crime, more jobs, better education and housing are needed. However, this has not curbed the prison population growth.

Whilst there’s little argument against striving for social equality, some suggest it oversimplifies the complex nature of crime.

But the final word and most overwhelming reason to reconsider how we approach prison ministry is been recorded for us by the greatest reformer in history, Jesus.   Just as Elizabeth Fry embraced his teachings I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’ maybe we could consider doing the same?

Eleni Arapoglou

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