“Remember those who are in prison, as if in prison with them” (Heb 13:3). When Jesus began his public ministry in his hometown of Nazareth, he quoted from the prophet Isaiah that he had come to proclaim liberty to captives (Lk 4:18).
Like today, society had good reason to keep some people incarcerated, however the incarcerated require our mercy also. When we feel tempted to withhold our care from them, it would be good to recall how many significant figures from the Bible have spent time in prison.
Even Jesus himself experienced incarceration, and in doing so made the prison cell sacred ground, so let’s not forget that the Good News is meant for all people, regardless of their circumstances.
There are many practical challenges when it comes to visiting and caring for those in prison. However, Carinity provide a team of dedicated volunteers through Inside Out Prison Chaplaincy who selflessly provide pastoral care and chapel services to prisoners across Queensland. In addition, we look for ways to support those whose spouses or parents are incarcerated as they too suffer not only the pain of separation, but the stigma of guilt.
We can all exercise this work of mercy by speaking up for the dignity of prisoners, by addressing issues of overcrowding and conditions that are often dehumanising for prisoners and guards alike. We must recognise that even those who are guilty of the most heinous crimes possess human dignity and worth. Jesus said, “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).
Those who have committed brutal crimes and have been imprisoned are certainly “the least” in the eyes of society today. Those who were most marginalised were the special recipients of Christ’s merciful outreach 2,000 years ago and he wants us, the members of his Body, to continue his mission today.
This work of mercy does not end when a convict is released. Restorative justice programs and practical support are necessary to help former prisoners integrate back into society, and we look for ways to provide opportunities for this work to be carried out. We must also be realistic enough to recognise that some former prisoners have very deep rooted problems that cannot be dismissed with the wave of a hand, and their path to restoration will often be slow, but as followers of Jesus we should commit ourselves to journeying with them and helping them not to give up hope.
Another important group of people who stand in need of the mercy of this work are juvenile offenders who have found themselves before the courts or behind bars because something, or someone, has failed them. We should not be naïve in working with young offenders and understand that it requires much patience, discretion, training, and support. There will be setbacks, challenges, even heartbreak along the way, however the greatest tragedy is when any human being stops hoping, even more so when that human being is a child yet to reach adulthood.
Finally, we can expand this work of mercy to embrace those who are imprisoned by circumstance of life such as the elderly who confine themselves to their homes, the residents of aged care communities, those trapped in addiction or mental illness, and those trapped in the cycle of abuse. All are deserving of our mercy and care.
We read in the Acts of the Apostles that once, when Paul and Silas were in prison, they were praying and singing hymns to God and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25). May our thoughts, prayers and songs of praise to the God who sets each of us free reach the ears of our sisters and brothers who are imprisoned.
Coordinator – Inside Out Prison Chaplaincy