Violence against some of our most vulnerable

There has been extensive media coverage in the last couple of weeks of allegations of mis-treatment of prisoners, particularly in Auckland’s privately-managed remand prison.

I’m generally in favour of allowing a greater role for the private sector, and rolling back the advances of the regulatory state. But I’ve never been comfortable with privately-run prisons, no matter how good the contracting might be. Prisons are among the starkest cases in which the coercive power of the state is exercised. People are kept against their will, in confined circumstances, sometimes for decades at a time. Prisons are necessary, of course – whether you emphasise punishment, rehabilitation, deterrence, or whatever. But that coercive power should be exercised only by directly employed and directly accountable employees of the state. The analyst in me struggles to identify the difference, but there is something repugnant about contracting outside companies or agencies to imprison human beings.

But this isn’t my economics and public policy blog. And I’m not suggesting prison violence is more common or more tolerated in private than public prisons (perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t). What I wanted to reflect on here is who we should, as Christians, approach the treatment of prisoners. Perhaps we can start with the passage from Isaiah 61, echoed by Jesus, as recorded by the gospel writers.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.

I don’t think of that as an active administrative programme – it is, rather, a vision of the fulfilled, coming Kingdom. But it is also a reminder that prisoners are among the most vulnerable in our societies. And if the quality of our society is to be judged in part by how we treat the most vulnerable among us, then the treatment of prisoners can’t be a matter of indifference. Worse, we cannot just shrug off whatever happens in prison – as I’ve heard senior government ministers do (for example here) – with a “oh, they are some of the most violent people in the country, and fights will happen”.

People are, appropriately, punished for the crimes they’ve been convicted of. But a sentence to a term of imprisonment is primarily a sentence to a loss of liberty (where to go, what to eat, how to dress). It is not – or should not be – a sentence to years of terror, never quite sure when the next brutalising assault will come. And while many of our prisoners have committed violent crimes, many others have not. And the most recent allegations have related to a remand prison – where the inmates have not yet been convicted of anything at all. The role of the state is not just to protect society from prisoners, it must be at least as much to protect prisoners themselves. Prisons need to be structured and staffed to provide both levels of protection, and they need to be staffed by people with a strong sense of mission, that includes a commitment to protection the weak, and restraining those who threaten. Perhaps we need robust Christian young people who are willing to work, and witness, as prison officers?

We don’t hear much about prison rape in New Zealand. It has been a major issue in the United States. Admirable coalitions, including conservative Christian bodies, have begun to push for change; for recognition that people don’t stop being human – made in God’s image, and with all the dignity that bestows – just because they crossed a line and ended up in prison. Laws have been changed (here is ex white-collar prisoner Charles Colson on that change), but laws take things only so far. Culture matters, perhaps even more than law.  A gospel of a Saviour who emptied himself of heaven’s glory, lived among us, and died a brutal death as a prisoner of the Roman Empire is perhaps the best hope for that. A gospel of a Saviour who stands with the weak, the poor and the vulnerable, and who calls his church – us individually, he notes uncomfortably – to do the same.

Assault, rape, intimidation, violence and murder are awful, and unacceptable, no matter where they happen. But when they happen to people entrusted to the 24 hour care of the state, totally reliant on the protection of the state, the shame should be all the greater. When these things happen the state has failed. And if we, as citizens, turn aside, we share in the failure, and in the shame.

“When I was brutalised, or in terror, in prison”, we might be one day be asked “what did you do for me”  I find it an uncomfortable question.

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