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Visiting the imprisoned can be a rewarding act of mercy

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According to the Church, one of the corporal works of mercy is to visit the imprisoned. I was reminded of this in reading The Visits by Christine Brown (published by Austin Macauley, £8.99). For ten years Christine Brown visited young men in a prison and young offenders’ institute. She only stopped being a prison visitor when staff shortages meant there were not enough officers for escort duty. Her slim book, a collection of her memories, would make a useful manual for others thinking of doing similar work. It is a practical and unsentimental record, detailing the frustrations entailed in dealing with a penal institution and providing a picture of the men she talked to for an hour a week; they were usually young, unconfident, with fragile family relationships and painfully unprepared to return to the outside world on their release.

“It’s a different world in here, Miss”, as the inmates often informed her when she first met them. Poorly educated, clashing with step-fathers, being thrown out of the house, sometimes from foster care, the saddest phrase they often echoed was their assurance to Christine that, despite having little or no contact with family while in prison they were still “loved to bits” by their relatives.

Although not allowed to give out any personal details and on no account permitted to contact prisoners on their release, her weekly visits deeply affected the author. Indeed, in her book she admits that “I cannot think of anything that would be as rewarding.” Although, as she relates, “you take nothing in and you take nothing out”, the encounter meant at the very least that inmates had an excuse to leave their cell for an hour and at best they were listened to by a sympathetic person from the outside, someone who cared enough to want to get to know and understand them, and had the opportunity to talk about themselves, their hopes and their fears.

Christine learnt that the prospect of release often brought apprehension rather than happy anticipation. All too often the inmates she chatted to had neither job prospects, nor place to stay and no friends to offer support when they left prison – sometimes made conspicuous by carrying a bag with HMP stamped on it. Prison had provided its own dour form of security, with three meals a day and a regular structure to men who were largely inadequate at coping with the practicalities of life and whose few possessions were lost or purloined upon being sentenced.

Reading Christine’s book reminded me of my own 20-year correspondence with a US prisoner in a long stay prison in the US. This came about through my contacting First Century Christian Ministries and being put in touch with a Catholic prisoner. It was only after many years of letters going back and forth across the Atlantic that I learnt the details of his crime (you are not allowed to ask): an act of random, unpremeditated folly with a gun when he was aged 18 that caused a death. Now, after 40 years’ incarceration as an exemplary prisoner, his release date is on the horizon. This is a man who has practised his faith conscientiously while in prison – reminding one of the important role of prison chaplains. His mother, single, poor and a teenager when she gave birth, had put him on a swing in a park aged seven and then vanished from his life forever. He has long forgiven her.

As with Christine Brown and her prison visiting, my long and ongoing contact is very important to me. It has resulted in an odd kind of friendship, but a real and meaningful one.