WHEN I first became a prison chaplain in 1957, 1 remember how amazed I was by the number of prisoners who were Catholic. At first I thought it was a local phenomenon, but soon discovered that it was true of every penal establishment in the country.
Today Catholics make up nearly a quarter of the prison population of 42,000. Many reasons are given for this and the obvious one is that most criminals come from the poorer classes from the big cities of Britain where the percentage of Catholics is much higher than average.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that the Catholic Church is necessarily concerned ssith this significant minority of its membership. The concern of the Church over the years has mainly concentrated on caring for prisoners while they are inside. Consequently every penal establishment has its full-time or part-time chaplain.
Although societies like Si Vincent de Paul and the Catholic Social Service for Prisoners have a long record of helping men when they were released from prison, on the whole the Catholic body was not interested in the
more Fundamental questions about penal policy. I do not find this surprising. After all the Catholic Church for centuries had adopted a defensive attitude to the rest of the world and was more concerned with the security of its own position.
It was unlikely that the Catholic Church would devote its energies to, say, the quality of life of the inner city or questions of justice and peace in our own or other countries. Or for that matter that it should have a penal policy of any sort other than the single one outlined above.
Then came the Second Vatican Council and everything changed. In its famous decree The Church in the Modern World', which should he read in its entirety, it has this to say: "This Council therefore looks with great respect upon all the true. good and just elements found in the very wide variety of institutions which the human race has established for itself and competently continues to establish.
"The Council affirms moreover that the Church is willing to assist and promote all these interests to the extent that such a service depends on her aid and can be associated with her mission."
The particular human institution alluded to in this article is of course the prison system and attitudes to crime and punishment. The Church would be the 'first to acknowledge that much has already been achieved in this field by deeply concerned men and women and it would also acknowledge that its own contribution has been on the whole minimal.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church, in common with other Christian churches. feels that it has something to offer. Accordingly the hierarchy of England and Wales has set up a penal affairs committee as a subcommittee of its social welfare commission to advise the bishops on matters relating to prisons and penology.
There are: I. The involvement of the Catholic community in activities concerning the welfare of offenders and their families (visit ing, rehabilitation. after-care. support for prisoners' families and so on.)
2. Thinking through the consequences of imprisonment — the effects of present prison conditions, the overcrowding, the length of sentences and so on.
3. Being concerned with the standards of behaviour in our prisons and conditions in which the prison staff have to work, 4. The question of human rights of men who are in prison. 5. The possibilities of noncustodial sentences.
6. Seeking to guide public opinion on an enlightened
approach to penal affairs. 7. Advising the bishops on reactions to important public inquiries such as the May report, Any informed person will realise that penology has many difficult and intractable problems. It is certainly true that there arc many men in prison who should not be there. Among these there are some who are handicapped, and are others who are described in the May report as "persistant petty criminals." Together these two categories alone will make up a sizeable percentage of the prision population.
It is not enough for an institution such as the Catholic Church to move into this field and immediately start criticising the system. when those responsible for the system are perfectly well aware of its defects, Rather, the Church should help in any way it can, by providing an alternative solution, which would be both constructive and helpful. When the Church is seen to be genuinely understanding of the difficult problems of penology. and anxious to solve these problems, have earned the right to be listened to with attention.