Some while ago I decided to spend this Holy Week with those who regularly experience the things Jesus did during his final week - prisoners, refugees, the homeless, families facing bereavement. To observe these overlapping worlds of the disadvantaged is to get a glimpse of life at the darker end of our society, people caught in lives kept at the beck and call of others, with little room to exercise choice or find a sense of purpose.
As a result, I found myself sitting in on a senior meeting of the staff of a London prison, as they recounted the various incidents that had happened over the weekend. It was like listening to a tidal wave of pain. Half a dozen episodes of self-harm, several men found with ligatures around their necks threatening suicide, a number of fires set off in cells, rooms vandalised, a prison officer stabbed in the face by an out of control prisoner wielding a sharpened plastic knife.
Visiting the segregation unit was sobering. The tiny rectangular cells, twelve feet by six, with a dirty window opening on a prison yard, were bare, stark and pitiless. The more extreme cases, like the man who stabbed the officer, had been placed temporarily in 'special accommodation' as a last resort - a dark, cold box room, with no light, not even a bed - nothing. It is hard to imagine a more desolate and desperate place.
On rounds with one of the admirable Anglican Chaplains, I met an inmate who, high on the unpredictable drug Spice, was convinced his arm was bendable and managed to break both bones in his own forearm. Another thought he had two grandchildren but as he was estranged from his family, had never met them. Many others were on their third or fourth term inside, unable to manage life outside the closely managed environment of the prison where most decisions are taken away and life is monitored and controlled at every point.
There's no getting away from it: prison is a brutal and brutalising place. It demeans people, takes away their freedom, their decision-making powers, and so often their dignity. In a way, that is partly the point - it is not meant to be a holiday. Nonetheless, most prison staff, including Chaplains, do a remarkable job at mitigating this, making prison as humane as it can be, treating prisoners with care, respect and skill, making the most of the opportunities there are for rehabilitation, despite the chronic lack of resources, staff levels that are far too low, and buildings often unsuited for the task.
In Holy Week, Jesus was imprisoned, most likely in a small, underground cell with no light, much like the segregation unit I saw. He entered the darkest, most desolate place, though even worse - the only prospect of release was to a cruel, public, painful death. Yet by entering the lowest place, he did so to redeem it, to break its power. Christians believe that that prison cell, the place of Jesus' confinement, became a place through which redemption and freedom comes to the human race.
Prison will always be harsh, uncomfortable, brutal. Yet part of that redemption must mean giving prison staff and Governors the resources to make them also places of restoration, rather than just keeping the lid on the vast amount of frustration and aggression so often to be found in our jails. Our society needs a new vision for prisons, not just as a place of punishment, or somewhere to dump the people we would rather not think about and need to be protected from, but a place where lives can be restored, a place where prisoners can be given education, faith and hope, the skills they need to reintegrate into society on their release, and the resources to turn their lives around, spiritually, personally and socially.
Prisons gather together in one place the most vulnerable people - often the most damaged and most damaging. That is why they are so volatile and sometimes explosive. Yet they could also be places of healing and restoration, where there is a serious attempt to rebuild lives that have been broken, not just for their own benefit but also for the benefit of the whole of our society. Prison can be redeemed and redeeming, but to do so will take political will, and a vision that redemption is possible. And there is no better time than Easter to reclaim that vision.