Page 7, 28th March 1980

28th March 1980
Page 7
Page 7, 28th March 1980 — The May committee on the prison service came up with
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The May committee on the prison service came up with

some criticism. Here a specialist looks at the Church's role in penal reform.

Gaps in the May report

IOWARDS the end of last year the Social Welfare Commission of the Hierarchy of England and Wales set up a penal affairs committee under the chairmanship of Monsignor Patrick MurphyO'Connor, to advise on matters relating to crime and delinquency; to the trial and sentencing of those charged and convicted of crime; to their treatment in accordance with the sentence of the courts and to the care and aftercare of offenders, and their families. This step showed the growing concern in the Catholic community about penal affairs. The commission first took up the matter in a serious way in 1972; since then there have been other initiatives among Catholics, including the establishment of the Prisoners Sunday Movement.

In 1977, following the Hull Prison riot the commission considered the balance between the rights of prisoners and the protection of the public. The riot at Hull did not sustain public interest for long, but the actions of the prison officers following it was quite a different matter which began to have repercussions on the running of prisons and the structure of the criminal justice system.

Eventually the Government intervened and set up Mr Justice May's committee to enquire into the prison services. It reported in October 1979 and some outs conclusions are relevant to discussion of the proper place of imprisonment in today's world.

The Committee has now met four times. Its subject matter is extremely far ranging, but already a consensus of opinion has emerged about certain questions. Christian concern, Concern for prisoners has never been popular with the population at large. What is surprising is that this lack of concern is widespread even among practising Catholics. That there is a clear injunction on Christians to be concerned, is not in doubt, and yet this is not reflected in the attitude of the average Catholic. Those who seek to improve the offenders lot are often accused of being 'dogooders'! The Christian approach to penology carries with it the obligation of concern for the evil doer and a desire for his rehabilitation. It insists also:

1) that the laws be just: 2) that they be seen to be applied justly in all areas including that of the treatment of offenders; 3) that the criminal justice system seeks to minimise the harm done to the innocent in the course of dealing with the guilty e.g, families of prisoners. the victims etc.

In its operation our criminal justice system does not always seem to be entirely consonant with what either Christian — or common sense — views about crime and punishment would demand. , Increasingly in a secular society that is reluctant to commit itself to any trenchant moral position, there is a retreat towards expediency. It takes the form of saying that what is done to and for the offenders must be directed towards his treatment or rehabilitation, and the form of such treatment will tend to he what is easiest or most convenient to apply.

The May Report made certain criticisms of the present Prison system, Among them: That there are categories of men and women in prison who ought not to he there at all. e.g. alcoholics, the mentally ill, and some persistent offenders.

That remand prisoners on the whole "suffer the worst conditions when arguably, they should have the best".

That prison officers are involved in levels of overtime (about 12 hours per week) which cannot be considered good for the service.

That sentences tend to be excessively long. That the action of prison officers "actions which cause inmates suffering ... are. regardless of the nature of the dispute, not only unjustified, but positively, immoral".

That "humane containment" is too sterile, too pessimistic a notion to serve as the primary objective of imprisonment.

As Christians we heartily endorse these points, but there are other aspects of the report which are far less encouraging. In particular, the fact that, unlike any similar report of the past hundred years, May makes no reference to the spiritual and religious dimension of man, nor to the help that Christian religion can afford: The Catholic community: What can be said that is relevant to the Catholic community is: I ) Perhaps the most disturbing fact — that nearly a quarter of the prison population are registered as Catholics.

2) For far too long Christian initiative in penal affairs has been left to others and we acknowledge the growing concern among Catholics to remedy this.

3) The whole question of the

rights of prisoners especially in a penal system that places a growing emphasis on custodial security should be of immense concern to us. Such rights include recognition that men go to prison as punishment and not for it. Moreover the rights of prisoners ought to be recognized and protected.

4) There is a need to alert: Catholics to the problems connected with crime on our Own doorstep. The loneliness of the wives and families of prisoners, the victims of crime, some of whom feel that the crime has rubbed off on them. Of equal importance is the after care of prisoners and the contribution that Catholics could make.

That prison officers are involved in levels of overtime (about 12 hours per week) which cannot be considered good for the service.

That sentences tend to be excessively long.

That the action of prison officers, "actions which cause inmates suffering ... are, regardless of the nature of the dispute, not only unjustified, but positively, immoral."

That "humane containment" is too sterile, too pessimistic a notion to serve as the primary objective of imprisonment.

As Christians we heartily endorse these points, but there are other aspects of the report which are far less encouraging. In particular, the fact that, unlike any similar report of the past hundred years, May makes no reference to the spiritual and religious dimension of man, nor to the help that Christian religion can afford.

The Catholic Community : What can be said that is relevant to the Catholic community is: 1) Perhaps the most disturbing fact that nearly a quarter of the prison population are registered as Catholics.

2) For far too long Christian initiative in penal affairs has been left to others and we acknowledge the growing concern among Catholics to remedy this.

3) The whole question of the rights of prisoners especially in a penal system that places a growing emphasis on custodial security should be of immense concern to us. Such rights include recognition that men go to prison as punishment and not for it. Moreover the rights of prisoners ought to be recognized and protected. 4) There is a need to alert Catholics to the problems connected with crime on our own doorstep. The loneliness of the wives and families of prisoners, the victims of crime, some of whom feel that the crime has rubbed off on them. Of equal importance is the after care of prisoners and the contribution that Catholics could make




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