Michael Gregory explains the work of the Catholic Social Service for Prisoners.
Al.BERT FLINT, serving imprisonment for life, recently died in HM Prison Preston. Shortly before he died, he made over all his possessions to the Catholic Social Service for Prisoners. It came to a few pounds, a suit, an overcoat, a pair of shoes and a handful of small items. God bless you, Albert. May you rest in peace.
I think anyone familiar with the work of the CSSP will understand why Albert Flint should want to conclude his life with a great act of kindness and appreciation to the Society.
There has always been a need for the Society's work of helping men and women make a fresh start after prison, and of caring for their families during the sentence. There is no doubt whatsoever that the need is now greater than ever.
When the prison population reached 39,000 a few years ago, it was declared a crisis. The prisons were bursting at the seams. They could only cope by cramming three men into cells designed for one, and by reducing recreation.
Some men had to be locked up for 23 hours a day. If that was a crisis, what have we today? The prison population has just topped 48,000.
This figure represents 48,000 separate tragedies — not just for the prisoner, but also for his or her family. In truth, they are tragedies for all of us, and if prison conditions are inhumane the tragedy is all the worse for it — not just because the sentence is harder to endure. It is because confining men in insanitary, overcrowded, under-staffed, antique establishments, cripples the morale and morals, scarring the personality.
In 1960 I recall that delegates to the UN Congress on the Treatment of Offenders made much of our prisons as places of reform, training and education, designed to send prisoners out in a better state than when they went in. No longer do you hear that pretence.
The prisons are universally and officially recognised as a terrible blemish on society, where it would be a miracle if any prisoner did not come out the worse for the experience.
And what hope is there for the worrying prisoner's wife, struggling to keep the home together? What hope that her man will ever build a new life again? She has an ally in the CSSP. They want the same as she does and try to give it — comfort for her and her children, a new life for all exprisoners.
If we choose to punish by imprisonment, there is an overriding duty to cure the ills of the overcrowded system. Let us see an end to the scandal of keeping accused on remand locked up for months on end awaiting trial.
A fair proportion are eventually acquitted, or not given a custodial sentence. End the use of prisons as dustbins of the Welfare State, for sweeping the awkward cases out of sight and opt of mind — the mentally sick, debtors, drop-outs, drunks.
End the use of police cells and abandoned camps as prisons, where there are no arrangements for the care of human beings, no chaplains, recreation, or medical facilities and often no family visits.
As conditions inside and outside prison worsen, the job of the CSSP gets harder and harder. The range of human problems the Society tackles in these times of high unemployment is daunting. But the CSSP is a marvel. It overcomes.
Only exceptional men and women have the skill, compassionate commonsense and fortitude to bring to bear that sure touch of understanding and encouragement which has always been the hallmark of the Society.
Happily the CSSP is stronger than ever. Never before has it had teams so well qualified to tackle its tasks, and each member is devoted to its work. It is busy. It is buoyant. In Christine Burton it has a fine new Chairman, all Scottish good sense and commitment to the cause.
We live in a bad old world and the CSSP sails rough seas. But it is heartening that the annual meeting brought together six priests to concelebrate a special Mass, and some 75 more good folk who care passionately about the needy of all kinds.
They know we must love our neighbour whoever he or she may be and whatever he or she is like. By some miracle this charity has survived years of crippling inflation — just. It must continue, because this charity brings to our needy brothers and sisters the great antidote to despair — HOPE.
Further information: The CSSP, 189A, Old Brompton Road, London SW 5. Telephone: 01-370 6612.
Michael Gregory is a former Chairman of the Catholic Social Service for Prisoners.