Faith in prison


Faith in prison

This is an edited version of a talk given by a retired member of the Scottish Prison Service to a conference on Spiritualities and Prisons.

Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them (Hebrews 13).

I spent 31 of my 38 years in the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) in prison.  The themes of annual Prisoners Week, a national attempt to interest faith communities and the public in prison, always resonated with me.  I particularly agonised over the theme ‘More than a Number’.  My training as a young Assistant Governor back in the mid-70s focused heavily on Irving Goffman, a highly influential American psychologist, who wrote in the 1950s about the stripping away of individual personality when someone was incarcerated.  This process was deemed inevitable and, at the risk of over-simplifying, focused on a person becoming a number.

I remember in the late 80s pioneering a new form of nationally accredited distance learning for volunteer staff, giving them an introduction to the sociology of prisons and prisoners.  They were absolutely horrified to hear this theory, disputing it vehemently, feeling very hurt.  Then at some point the penny dropped and they began to look critically beneath the surface at what goes on in a prison.  I think one of the big, if not the biggest, challenge to those working in prisons is how to treat prisoners as individuals when all the pressures impacting on them are towards conformity and uniformity.

There is no fundamental agreement as to what prisons exist for.  There are at least four mainstream aims of imprisonment, to which I would add one controversial view, and another which I will throw in to challenge your views on ‘justice for all’.

The first aim is punishment.  In the 60s and early 70s punishment was not in fashion.  Now the debate is about how much punishment.  Public opinion still seems to be essentially punitive.

Rehabilitation or reform: since the turn of the 20th century prisons have been actively viewed by some as places of correction.  How realistic is this?  Is it evidence led?

Deterrence: much beloved by segments of the judiciary and police.  Are we deterred from doing something we want to by the thought of possible adverse consequences?  I cannot remember any prisoner telling me he even thought about what the length of sentence would be if caught.

Incapacitation: do you remember Michael Howard in the early 1990s arguing that ‘prison works’?  What he seemed to be arguing for was making communities safer by taking offenders out.  There is a contrary argument that every time someone is sent to prison the likelihood is that he will return, therefore decreasing, not increasing, public safety.  This is a difficult argument to present, appearing counter-intuitive and contrary to common sense.

Place of respite: some judges unashamedly use prison as a place of refuge or respite for female offenders.  Numbers here are very small but neverthess this argument, often presented as a caring person led approach, is worth noting.

The effect of prison on celebrities, particularly politicians: somehow the media expects prison to teach or effect humility.  I would mention Jonathan Aitken, a former high flying Secretary of State for Defence.  He has written and spoken extensively on the impact of prison, especially on his Christian beliefs.  There is a wider debate to be had about how white collar criminals are punished and how few we seem to have in Scotland.

It is important to ask in the context of faith in prison which of the four major overarching aims of imprisonment members of the public have faith in.  Many would argue the aims are contradictory.

As Christians we are called to love our neighbour.  When I speak to church groups I take the Good Samaritan as my text.  Here we have a parable which is about violence, the response to violence and a victim who is cared for by someone not of his ethnicity.  We are introduced to two senior high status people who we would expect have stopped instantly to offer care but famously passed by on the other side.  Does our community prefer to pass by on the other side rather than actively help the victim or address the needs of the offender to prevent another victim?

Faith communities have always been very active in prisons.  Prisons in the 19th century were run by a triumvirate – the governor, the medical officer and the chaplain.  The power, status and influence of the chaplain has long since been reduced but importantly, the post is still there and takes many different forms.  Chaplains punch well above their weight.

They play a valuable pastoral role and influence the mood and atmosphere of all prisons.  I recently visited the newest prison in Scotland, Grampian, the first designed as almost an all-inclusive community based prison.  I was part of a church group taken round by the acting full-time chaplain.  She clearly knew many staff and prisoners who were all happy to stop and chat and one felt instantly that she exercised a real presence in the jail.

In the not so distant past, it was controversial to suggest chaplains had a role with staff and that they should be sitting on policy committees such as Suicide Prevention.  Now chaplains see themselves as serving the entire prison community.  Note the term community.  Prison can profitably be seen as a community, not a microcosm of society, which it emphatically is not, but a community where people come together and work through the stresses and strains of communal living.  As a Governor I always thought chaplains had a unique overview of prison life and I greatly valued their insights.  In Polmont, the chaplain and I often went round the Young Offenders Institution together late on a Friday afternoon which I thought gave out a powerful message to staff and young people about the caring, listening ambience we were striving to achieve.

Chaplains have also been in involved in bringing prisoners to faith.  One recent example is Anthony Gielty who has written a book about his troubled life changed by coming to faith called Out of the Darkness.

I think we need to be careful about promoting rehabilitation in custody.  The critical issues affecting the future of a person with convictions are health, addiction, employment and housing.  There is a limit to what can be done in prison but what can be done should be done and increasingly is being done.  In my experience this is not easy or straightforward.

The SPS Chief Executive, Colin McConnell, has given the service a fresh vision.  In particular he has resourced the initiative, started at Greenock, of appointing throughcare support officers for every prison which releases people with convictions to their community, which is in practice every prison except Shotts.  The new mission is about ‘providing services that help to transform the lives of people in our care so that they can fulfil their potential and become responsible citizens’.

Faith in Prison is about offering relevant services in a realistic way which will lead eventually to successful prolonged rehabilitation in the community.  It is also about creating a prison environment which is safe, clean, modern and supportive.  Investment in the SPS estate since the late 1990s has ensured that about 80% of all prisoners live in a building which meets contemporary expectations and offers specialist buildings which are on a par with what all of us can access in our own communities.  These buildings do not have bars on the windows and, in theory at least, participants could be anywhere.  We should remember that prisoners’ living conditions are the working conditions for residential staff.  If prisoners feel cared for in terms of the quality of accommodation, then that is one step to convincing them that society outside has not abandoned them.

In 1996 I went from Greenock, then the newest prison in Scotland, to Polmont, where to my horror I found two wings which were the poorest I had ever seen.  I invited the Head of Estates to Polmont.  When we were on the top flat, I saw a young person I remembered from Greenock.  I asked him to compare conditions.  He said they were poor here but he added we didn’t deserve any better.  That comment said a lot about his self-esteem and the standing he felt young people enjoyed in society.  SPS has recently moved additional resources into Polmont, helped by a massive reduction in youth offending numbers.

There is one area where faith communities, and in particular the Church of Scotland, have exercised leadership of a high order: the expansion of visitor centres.  I am chair of the Stirling Inter faith Community Justice group and we have run the Cornton Vale Hub since it opened.  Last month we opened a facility at Glenochil which has been well received and is already being well used.  All our volunteers have come to us from the local churches.  Unfortunately the inter-faith part of our title is aspirational.  While we hope, as does the government, that this type of support for vulnerable families will help to reduce re-offending, it is also a visible and tangible form of outreach from the churches.  It is worth noting that the money from Scottish Government of £3m over three years is coming from three different Departments – Community Justice, Early Years and Public Health.

Dostoevsky famously said it is the test of a civilisation how we treat our prisoners.  Churchill when Home Secretary repeated it, but there is really no evidence that this has been a touchstone of social policy.  The improvement in conditions in Scotland came from a legal judgment, not any radical government committed to social justice.

Ultimately prisons serve numerous purposes.  Society operates on the basis that they are all complimentary and our preference is to walk by on the other side and leave it all to the professionals.  We should aspire to a humane, safe and supportive penal environment where all people, regardless of background, can help one another to develop their potential.

When I left the SPS I wrote a final email to all staff and finished with these words from Micah –Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Dan Gunn is the former Head of Operations at the Scottish Prison Service and is an elder in the Church of Scotland.



Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.