Compassion for those in prison is a powerful spiritual imperative, which appears frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. But what does it mean to the men and women doing their bird in the jails of today’s Britain?
Linguistically the word compassion, which comes from the Latin preposition cum (with) and the verb passio (suffer) translates to suffer together with.
Theologically applied to our criminal justice system, the word suggests that God shows his compassion by suffering with or alongside prisoners.
When I was serving my 18 month sentence for perjury in HMPs Belmarsh, Standford Hill and Elmley in 1999, I drew strength and comfort from the Book of Psalms, particularly verses like these which show that God is loving towards those behind bars.
- ‘Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name’ (Psalm 142:7)
- ‘God leads forth the prisoners with singing’ (Psalm 68:6)
- ‘May the groans of the prisoners come before you’ (Psalm 79:11)
I was always comforted by prisoner sympathetic statements like Isaiah 30:18 above.
The New Testament references to prisoners give even more encouragement for the view that God has compassion for those in prison. Many of the first Christians who were persecuted or incarcerated were God’s people like John the Baptist, Peter and Paul the Apostle. Most important of all, Jesus himself, became a prisoner when he was held the night before his crucifixion in a cell in the High Priest’s headquarters.
Compassion, however, is not a one-way street. Prisoners who reach out to God can be sure of his love and mercy. But they should also offer compassion to others around them, such as new young arrivals on the wings, and inmates who have family problems or mental health issues. In my experience the milk of human kindness often flows generously through a prison community.
Rev Jonathan Aitken is Patron of Prison Fellowship England and Wales, an ex-MP, ex-Cabinet Minister and ex-prisoner, and now an ordained deacon in the Church of England.
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