At the Induction Service of the 6th Prisons Council of Ghana, the third presiding bishop of the Methodist church, Most Reverend Professor Emmanuel Asante had the following words of admonition for the Council Members:
On this great Sunday when we have gathered to induct into office the distinguished members of the Ghana Prison Council, I would like to do a reflection on the theme: Service to the Prisoner is Service to Jesus. To provide a biblical grounding to this theme, I would like to begin with the following abridged version of a story, which a friend posted to me:
A lady received an EMS letter, the signatory of which letter was Jesus. The content indicated that Jesus was going to be in her neighbourhood on a Saturday afternoon and would like to pay the lady a visit.
Her hands shaking and wondering why Jesus would want to visit her since she was a nobody special and had nothing to offer, she made feverish preparation with the little she had in expectation of her august visitor. She prepared a turkey sandwich and got ready in anticipation of her visitor.
A few minutes after she heard a knock at her door. Her heart leapt and she ran to open the door. To her dismay stood in front of the door a man and a woman shabbily dressed in a little more than rags. “Please lady I am unemployed and so is my wife. We have been on the streets. We are hungry. Can you give us something to eat? They were dirty; they smelled bad and appeared like people who had done some terms in prison. It even seemed like they were on drugs.
The lady answered the couple: “”I would like to help you, but I’m a poor woman. All I have I have reserved for an important visitor.” The man said to the woman: “Yeah, well lady I understand. Thanks anyway.” The couple turned and headed back to the street. As the woman watched them go, she felt disturbed in her spirit. So she said to them: “Please wait.” They turned and the woman gave them the turkey sandwich she had prepared for Her august visitor, Jesus. As she was thinking about what she would do when her august visitor arrived, the postman came again with another mail. The content read: “Thanks for the turkey sandwich. You were a blessing to me when I visited.” Signed Jesus.
Beloved this story brings us to the message of our Gospel reading this morning: Mt. 25: 31-40. Beloved the message is that it is as we serve the poor, the sick, the needy, and the outcasts and incarcerated, the prisoner that we serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of us are waiting for Jesus to appear to do service to him. Well Jesus is in the hospitals; He is on the streets. Beloved Jesus is in our various prisons. As you serve the prisoners you serve Jesus. It means that we must serve our prisoners as we would serve the Lord if He were here with us.
The State of our Prisoners
Often people go into prison with many concerns about home and family and about their own future. Many have fears about what the Prison holds for them, whether they can survive or if there is any future for them after they had done their terms and had been released from the prison custody.
It has been observed by David Blunkett that the vast majority of offenders are in jail because they have been exploited in one way or another. Many are in prison today because they were exploited by the powerful in relation to the drug trade. Some are there as they struggled to simply survive in our highly competitive, harsh and unfriendly world. Many are poor, homeless and hopeless. Others are rootless and many unemployed. A large number suffer from some form of mental illness. Others feel that they have no stake in society and owe it nothing.
The numbers of young offenders in our prisons are growing. These feel abandoned, have a sense of hopelessness and are dangerous both in Prison and outside.
Increasingly, the majority of those in prison custody “are poor; not simply economically but morally, spiritually, culturally, educationally and socially.” These have needs, which cannot be met by our present system.
I do not know how much it costs to keep a person in prison for just a week. I do believe, however, that imprisonment is an “expensive way of making people worse.” Many in prison will lose their jobs, accommodation or family as a result of doing a time in prison. The economic, social and psychological cost to those who are imprisoned cannot be measured in quantitative terms. Many who have done terms in prison loose their self-worth. The fact is that our present system lacks the capacity to meet the needs of those most impacted by crime. The alternative is Restorative justice as opposed to the Retributive justice.
Restorative justice works from the premise that crimes are to be viewed and considered less as violations against the State and more as violations against people. From the perspective of restorative justice, the important question is not “Who is to blame?’ but “How can we make things right for all concerned, the offender and the offended?” How can we make things right for people who have been seriously violated or for an offender who feels no sense of shame, guilt or responsibility? The criminal justice system centres on making sure that offenders are getting what they deserve. Restorative justice focuses on the needs of the offended, offenders and the community. It emphasizes the importance of participation by all who have been most impacted by the offence and gives all opportunity and empowerment to help in the process of making things right.
Distinguished Council members, you have come at a time when serious issues have been raised about custodial sentences, a time when there is ‘a steadily escalating sense of foreboding’ in relation to the overcrowding of our prisons. Have our prisons become Universities where inmates after doing terms become hardened criminals? Are we going to see strategic changes in our penal system? Are we going to see a prison system, which ensures that offenders are made fully aware of the damage they have caused individuals, themselves and families and friends and the community at large and that they are liable to repair the damage done? Are we going to have a system, which ensures that victims and offenders collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future?
The work of the prison officer is not only demanding at every level but also very stressful. How do we address the emotional and psychological needs of our prison officers? And how do we build the capacities of the prison officers to ensure effective management of our prisons? Members of Council yours is a call to bring into being a new system of prison that will emphasize restorative justice. Our prison must not be places of incarceration but centers of restoration. This will call for a new Council with a strategic vision to provide transformative leadership to the Service; prison officers who are well-trained specialists and have the capacity to give restorative care service to the prison inmates. When our prisons go through such transformation, when they become Centres of restoration, service to the prisoner, which is service to Jesus Christ, would become a reality. Beloved, there can be no “shalom” in the sense of peace, justice and well being without the restoration of social, physical, and moral justice. It means that peace and justice are possible only when we care for one another, even in wrongdoing. Service to the prisoner is service to Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved let me draw your attention to this cardinal truth: Authentic transformation or restoration is possible only in Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus came to set those who are in bondage to sin and evil free. We cannot bring restoration to our inmates without the intervention of God. In the letter to the Ephesians Chapter Two we read that before our experience of the gracious transformation of life in Christ, we were dead in transgressions and sins, in which also we used to live. We followed the ways of this world controlled by evil forces. We gratified the cravings of our sinful nature and followed its desires and thoughts. We were by nature objects of God’s wrath; we were enemies of God and friends of Satan, the evil one. But because of God’s great love for us, God who is rich in mercy and full of grace made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions and sins and saved us. God did all these for us so that we might engage in good works. The message here is that through transformation, authentic restoration is possible in Christ Jesus. Even though salvation is not based on our own good works; that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ. Faith in Christ transforms the believer’s life and disposes him or her to good works. Empirical points to the fact that hardened criminals have experienced transformation for the better through religious encounters. Faith in Christ Jesus can make a difference in our lives. The good works Christians do are the result and consequence of our salvation, which is God’s new creation work through the redemptive work of Christ Jesus. In our management of the prison service, let us place God at the centre.