We must no longer keep prisoners at arm’s length

We must no longer keep prisoners at arm’s length

Rev Martin Robinson spoke of his prison chaplaincy work to update Synod on the year that has been.  In short, he noted improvements in prison chaplaincy, but a dire degradation in the state of corrections in this country.

He challenged members with a quote from theologian Gustavo Gutierrez: “You say you care for the poor?  Then tell me, what are their names?”

Martin recounted an experience of speaking with a young Maori man who had been moved to a more open unit, with grass, a view of the hills, and some plants.  On going outside to speak with Martin, the young man, who was built like a heavyweight boxer, got down on the ground, and started to sniff a flower.  He began to cry, and said to Martin “excuse me, but I haven’t seen a flower in three years!”

At Rimutaka prison in Wellington, more than half of the prison’s population of more than 1,000 men live in concrete bunkers with no living thing – not a plant or blade of grass.  Some live there for years.  Fighting is routine in many units, drugs and cellphones still come in.  While there are courses and employment in many cases, they still have to live in a dehumanising, fundamentally damaging environment with many of New Zealand’s most damaged people.

Nick Hardwick was a chief inspector of prisons in the United Kingdom and he quit in disgust in 2016, saying: “Prisons do not prepare you to return to healthy society – a good prison simply teaches you how to be a good prisoner: compliant, devoid of initiative, quiet, devoid of normal emotion, to do what you’re told. At best! At worst, you learn to become more dangerous just to survive.”

Even in 1910, Winston Churchill stated that “the mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”  How civilised are we as a country?  Martin believes we are failing miserably.  To date, New Zealand has a record number of people incarcerated in its prisons, and this number has increased drastically since last year’s Synod. Martin’s daughter made a pertinent observation: “if prisons worked, surely the number of prisoners would be decreasing?”

Martin believes that there is a patent denial of any problems at the Department of Corrections, and that as Christians, we can no longer hold these vulnerable ones who are precious to Jesus at arm’s length.  “WE have people living in deprivation, and abject poverty in parts of New Zealand – and these are the ones who typically end up in our prisons. We need to choose to be involved and be part of creating a solution.  Certainly a good place to start would be more volunteers at prisons, as well as a concerted campaign of pressure for major reform.”

As a young Maori prisoner, aghast at the inequality of Maori in prisons compared to other ethnicities, challenged Martin: “If you say you believe what you believe, you believe in this radical loving Jesus, how come your people don’t speak up about it. You’ve got the language, the education, the connections. Why don’t you speak up?”

Here are some questions from Martin to facilitate a discussion in your mission unit:

  1. If the poor represented in our prisons are as precious to us as they are to Jesus, how might we change our priorities to support them?
  2. How could the Anglican Diocese of Wellington lead this country in its response to the prison crisis?
  3. What’s one thing my vestry/church could do in response to the heart of Jesus revealed in Matthew 25:36?

Please feel free to email your responses to us on duncan@wn.ang.org.nz.  We would love to continue this discussion and share your thoughts with the rest of the diocese.