Sunday, September 11, 2016

Catholic church leader says some UK prisons are a stain on society

Cardinal Vincent Nichols Some of Britain’s prisons are a “stain on society” and need to be transformed from “places of despair to places of redemption”, the archbishop of Westminster has said, calling for urgent and courageous reform of the penal system.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, told a conference of prison chaplains: “We think of ourselves as a civilised society yet we know that, in practice, our treatment of prisoners often falls short of acceptable standards.”

He disclosed that Pope Francis has invited hundreds of prisoners and their families to celebrate mass at the Vatican on 6 November as part of his year of mercy. “This is a tremendous undertaking and one not without risk,” Nichols said. It would send a powerful message that, in the pope’s words, “confinement is not the same as exclusion”.

In his speech, delivered on Tuesday at St Mary’s University in west London, the archbishop called on employers to drop the requirement for ex-prisoners to disclose their convictions when applying for jobs for two years after their release. “Every day people are instantly written off just because they have ticked that box,” he said.

The Catholic church would examine how it could “ban the box” while ensuring safeguarding was not compromised, he added. “I personally appeal to all employers to take this step and give people a fair opportunity that will benefit our society.”

A “bold and serious programme of prison reform” was needed more than ever, said Nichols.
“My message to the government today is that the Catholic church will be your partner in this. We are ready to work alongside and support you in transforming prisons from places of despair to places of redemption. But I also urge you to be brave and go further than any government before: make this the turning point where prison policy is built upon giving people the support they need to make amends and play a positive role in our society.”

No one could reasonably claim that the conditions in which many prisoners were held were acceptable, said Nichols. “It is a stain on our society that in the 21st century some prisons are still characterised by rubbish, damp, dirt, graffiti, and unhygienic facilities,” he said.

“The chief inspector recently highlighted how prisoners often have no choice but to eat meals in their cell right next to an unscreened toilet. There is surely no justification for treating our brothers and sisters with such disregard. Worse still, by locking people in squalor we send the most blatant message to society about their worth. A society which shows such contempt for a prisoner’s dignity truly undermines that prisoner’s chance of reforming their lives.”

He acknowledged that people in prison had “done wrong” and depriving someone of their liberty was “legitimate punishment”.

But he added: “In different circumstances, many of us may well have been led to make the terrible choices that led our brothers and sisters to prison. True rehabilitation means not defining people by their worst action for the rest of their life.”

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