The room was uncomfortably hot and airless—as prisons usually are in summer. It was the first time I had met this group of men. Many of them were young, which meant we were in for a lively session.
Steven caught my eye. He was about 21 years old and this was his first time in prison. He sat separately from the other groups of men and had not yet put on the bravado of most people here. It soon became apparent that he was bewildered as to why he was there at all.
I had barely introduced myself when Steven told me his story. He was a clean-living, God-fearing boy, proud of his first car that he took out with his mates one night. Sober but excited and over-confident, he drove too fast and an elderly pedestrian was knocked over and killed. So here he was, labelled a killer, punished for his crime and in a world of criminality that was far from his comprehension.
I have listened to many versions of people’s lives in prison, and I do my best to take them at face value. With this story, I found it easy. Compassion for Steven flowed readily because his story could easily have been mine when I too was full of the recklessness of youth.
Personally, I most readily find compassion for others if I can imagine myself living their life and making the same mistakes.
The longer I have spent looking into the eyes of a person in prison and understanding the parts of their lives which led them to criminality, the harder it becomes for me to withhold compassion. Even when their particular crime has felt personal and painful because of my own life experiences.
Compassion that is selectively applied to those we consider worthy is not compassion at all.
Compassion believes that every life has worth and can be transformed. It looks beyond the immediacy of a crime to ask what led to this action. It does not stand away from the crime and pass moral judgement. Rather, it digs deeper to root out the influences that led there and asks, ‘What would real justice look like?’ It understands both the suffering caused by crime and its roots. Compassion appreciates the severe pain of the victims but also strives to end the suffering of all.
I felt compassion for Steven because I could place myself in his shoes. If I turned my face away from others in the room because their crimes were beyond the worst thing I could imagine doing, then my compassion is merely self-protection.
But, every day, I see a transformative and just brand of compassion in action from PF volunteers. They could be enjoying time with their friends and family, but instead choose to be with people in prison. They show compassion to people they do not know and who have often been reviled by society and forgotten by loved ones.
PF volunteers return to prison because they believe that the people they find there are no different to themselves. They believe in second chances and that every life can be transformed. They know that consistently turning up and being present with another human being can spark hope. And this hope can be transformative for people like Steven and thousands of others in our prisons.
Peter Holloway is the Chief Executive of Prison Fellowship England and Wales.
This article was first published in our quarterly magazine in:sight. You can sign up to receive our free magazine by post or via email by visiting prisonfellowship.org.uk/subscribe