Imagine being imprisoned for thirteen years. How much would society have changed in that time?
In 1992, the last time you were a part of society, the Australian Prime Minister was Paul Keating and Queensland’s Premier was Wayne Goss. Mobile phones were rare and resembled a brick and the Internet was just catching on. Fittingly, the 1992 Academy Award winning film was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
Imagine living in a hostile and angry environment for thirteen years and walking out the door to freedom with little preparation for the outside world. Perhaps the feeling would be like abseiling, as you stand at the edge of a cliff and take the first step off.
Tasks that most people do everyday, like grocery shopping or catching public transport, become daily challenges.
In this edition of Journey, we are focusing on prison ministry. This is one of the few ministries we are specifically told to do, along with looking after the poor.
Prison ministers are a special breed. They have a sense of calm about them. They deal with society’s so called ‘worst criminals’ and treat them like the real people they are.
Inmates are someone’s daughter or son, mum or dad, friend or partner. Some inmates practise religion, including Christianity.
How challenging is it for us as Christians to relate to these people without judging them on their convictions? For me, it is very hard.
In my research I have read a lot on the way prisons operate and the history of Australian correctional institutions. I’ve read about faulty DNA evidence convicting people for 13 years. I’ve heard stories of abuse of the justice system and of power.
I’ve read the inside stories from people like award-winning journalist Bernie Matthews who studied while in prison and has experienced the true cruelty of the worst aspects of the prison system.
Mr Matthews’ story on the power prison chaplains have and the great respect a lot of prisoners have for them can be read on Page 9. It is a moving account of what it feels like to be in prison and have someone care for your physical, emotional and spiritual health in a practical way.
Many prison chaplains have said that a lot of prisoners should not be there. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or they did something without thinking. That is not denying people need to be accountable for their actions, but don’t we all?
To be released from prison, inmates need to provide an address. Without family or friends and with limited accommodation for people leaving prison, some inmates have nowhere to go and so remain in jail.
Reading this edition of Journey, you might ask yourself how you and/or your congregation would welcome a former prisoner. Would their conviction make a difference? What if they were a sex offender? They are tough questions to answer.
Mardi Lumsden is Associate Editor of Journey