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Church and Prison
A Homily delivered at the University of Cyprus on the 24th of November 2003
by the Reverend Metropolitan of Morphou, fr Neophytos
The law of this world is closely interwoven with the notions of penalty and of punishment. Prison, therefore, is a natural consequence of the law, which has prescribed the deprivation of one's freedom as punishment for those who transgress its stipulations. Despite Her entirely different handling of those who fall, who transgress God's law - not with penalties, but with forgiveness and absolution of sins - the Church is nevertheless quite qualified to talk about prison.
The reason for this is because She is familiar with imprisonment, both from the outside as well as the inside - as strange as that may seem. First of all, Christ Himself - but also the majority of the Saints of the Church - had acquired a personal experience of imprisonment, and even of tortures. Saint Mammas - the Patron Saint of our Metropolis - was born inside a prison. Before the time of Constantine the Great, the whole Church lived in a privation of freedom, in a prison. This continued, in various degrees, during the centuries that followed, and even up until our time. Let us bring to mind for example how many thousands of Christians were up until recently held in the prisons of atheist regimes, simply because of their faith.
However, beyond all this, Christ Himself made prison and prisoners a part of His Gospel, with this special reference on the topic: "I was a stranger, and you took me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in a prison, and you came to me..." (Matth.25:36). Prisoners, therefore, regardless for what reason, are according to the words of Christ Himself those who are in a difficult situation that requires our visit, our concern and our support. In fact, Christ places so much importance on this matter, that He says whoever visits a prisoner, visits Christ Himself.
Prison is therefore a marginal situation, which interests us from many aspects. That is why, from the very beginning of our ministry in the bishopric, we have also included the central prisons in our program. So, what I will say tonight is mostly empirical, given that after so many years of visiting prisons and becoming acquainted with prisoners, I can safely say that I have formed a first-hand picture of the world of imprisonment.
What has impressed me therefore from the very first moment is the following: not a single prisoner has ever confronted a bishop's visit in prison negatively or disparagingly, as is the case sometimes in environments outside prison. Regardless whether they consent to Confession or not, all prisoners see my presence in prison in a positive manner; in fact, they feel that they are bestowed a special honour when visited by a bishop, whom they usually refer to as "our priest".
Equally noteworthy is a general feeling of victimization that permeates prisoners. Not in the sense that they believe themselves to be innocent, but the feeling that others have committed far greater offences without being punished, while they are finally the ones who pay the price for everyone and everything.
Naturally, the topmost issue that preoccupies every prisoner without exception is the fact of his imprisonment - the deprivation of his freedom, which he feels in a most intense way - with an intensity that cannot be perceived by someone who has not lived in prison. The aim of all of them is to get out as soon as possible, or at least improve their situation by being transferred from a closed prison to a so-called "open prison"; in other words, to find themselves as close as possible to that much-desired freedom. That is why many of them, by linking the rank of bishop to certain secular connections, ask for my intercession to either be granted a pardon, or to secure improved conditions for their incarceration.
As I mentioned earlier, prisoners are in a marginal situation; they are branded by a feeling of being rejected by society. That is why they are first of all in need of a friendly presence. One prisoner used to say to me in a philosophical mood: "when you come here, always bring with you: the Confessor's Stole, a smile, a kind word and.... a packet of cigarettes..." First of all therefore, the presence of a priest, a bishop in prison is imperative. It should somehow become an element incorporated in the world of imprisonment, providing with its presence a certain possibility.
But apart from this, the Church has another immense role to play - especially with regard to the preparation of the prisoner for his exit. At that crucial moment when the prisoner is about to rejoin society, the underworld which ardently awaits his return will be hastening to embrace him as an experienced individual, a graduate of crime. His old environment will be waiting for him with outstretched arms, ready to drag him deeper into lawlessness.
That is why our work must be multi-faceted: so that this triumphant reinstatement might be averted and that person dissociate himself completely from the sphere of crime. Both from inside the prison, as well as after his release.
During their incarceration, the Church must strive to sensitize those people so that they can confront the reality of their situation; thus, a spiritual father's basic job is to try to extract from inside them the predisposition for revenge, because quite often, prisoners who have committed serious crimes find themselves caught between conflicting criminal interests and they may have connections in factions and gangs that are at each others' throats, thus making them feel that after their release, their life will be threatened and they must therefore "settle scores" or just take their revenge on those who they believe are chiefly responsible for their incarceration.
The opus of a spiritual father is therefore to try and bury the past on one hand - to not enter into details that pertain to the crime or the prisoner's previous life - and on the other hand, to try and set the bases for a normal future life, away from the world of crime, and without the desire for retaliation. In short, he must assist that broken human being to utilize his imprisonment spiritually and through repentance, give a whole new meaning to his life. In other words, to see his imprisonment, not as an end but as an opportunity for a beginning on another basis.
Of course this cannot be achieved through conversation and personal contact only. Other, more specific actions are also required, which the Church must undertake. For example, to assist that person in his reinstatement in society after his release from prison, by finding a job for him. This is why the Church must maintain Her connections to related services or organizations that can help.
The first period after someone's release from prison is indeed a crucial one, because that is the phase that will determine which way the scales will tilt. If the strong feeling of rejection that has been cultivated inside a person during his incarceration is amplified by his inability to be re-incorporated normally in society by finding a steady job, a house, certain social contacts etc., then it is very likely that he will return even more violently to the world of crime. And we all know that he will be welcomed there with open arms.
The Church must also arrange (wherever there is a need) to financially assist the families of prisoners, because, apart from the actual need of the family, this assistance will also have a beneficial effect on the prisoner.
It is also very helpful when priests or Bishops visit the people of their parish or metropolitan area who are in prison. This helps to preserve an extremely important bond - the feeling of belonging to the local Church - because this bond will act as a counterweight to any potentially bad influences that the prisoner may have acquired during his incarceration and will also help to minimize the feeling of social rejection that he already has.
It is for all the above reasons that the Church has to intensify Her presence in the field of prisons, given that nowadays, it is somewhat limited since there is only one elderly priest for the requirements of the Liturgy and fr. Marios Demetriou from Kaimakli for the needs of Confession. A much stronger presence is obviously necessary.
From my experience until now, I believe that further help in the direction described above can also be attained through special treatment of imprisoned youngsters and drug addicts. Young people who are imprisoned for some minor misdemeanour will inevitably confront in prison a world of accumulated criminal experiences. If they become initiated in that world, most of the time they will become worse individuals instead of becoming corrected (which is what one would expect from a correctional institution). In other words, they will become capable of even worse crimes, and their return to a normal life will become increasingly more improbable.
As much as this is may not be admitted, even drug addicts can worsen in prison. You might say: "How?" Well, I don't know. However, I have seen specific cases of light addictions, where the person went from bad to worse in prison and eventually ended up as users of hard narcotics. Then there are others, who have had to struggle superhumanly to avoid getting more involved with narcotics.
It is for all the above reasons that I believe it is imperative that there be a different approach for imprisoned young offenders and for those who are addicted to narcotic substances.
In closing this brief outline, I would also like to briefly mention how our society sees prison and prisoners.
Unfortunately, from a certain point in time onwards, our society became imbued with an "imported" moralistic mentality; because of this, the broadly accepted view is that the "bad guys" are the ones who are - or should be - in prison, whereas those who aren't in prison - the "good guys" and peace-loving citizens - are the ones who are entitled to enjoy their lives undisturbed.
But things aren't like that. There are no "good guys" and "bad guys", or, rather, they might exist, but only in cheap American movies.... In reality however, prisoners are no different at a moral level to the rest of us, because it doesn't matter what a person has committed in his past, but what he chooses to do with his life today and more so, how he judges himself in the face of his actions and generally how he judges himself.
Inside prisons, I have witnessed cases of overwhelming repentance, but also of astonishing engrossment. I have seen exactly the same outside prisons as well. Therefore, no-one has been judged and no-one can be judged - quite simply, because the One Who will judge has not come yet. So, it behooves us to discard this self-centeredness that has become lodged within our conscience. And most of all, we should never consider that there exists a given dividing line that separates those who are inside prisons with those who are outside prisons. Prisoners are a part of our own body and - as the Apostle Paul says - when one part is in pain, then the entire body is in pain.
These profound truths regarding prison were expressed in the most soul-stirring manner by another great prisoner - the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. His novel, "Memories from the house of the dead" is - if I can call it like that - a "diatribe" on the issue of prisons and prisoners. In this unusual book, which I recommend unreservedly because in my opinion it is a theological book, we will see the immeasurable depths of the human soul unfold. In that convict society of Siberia, we can discern the endless range of human passions, the tremendous willpower of a person in determining his own destiny, and the overthrowing of those prefabricated notions of "good guy" and "bad guy". And most of all, we will see an approach to evil as a matter related to freedom.
Because in the long run, that is what it is all about: Evil is one potential of human freedom. However, it is that same freedom which can lead a person to deification, and that same freedom can have a starting point whenever and wherever - even inside a prison.
Article published in English on: 13-8-2009.
Last update: 13-8-2009.