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Dr John Sentamu: Prison's purpose should be to rehabilitate, not just punish

Free pardon does not undervalue the damage caused by sin

Easter is a time for hope. Yes, it is a time to reflect on Jesus's death, but it is also a time for us to celebrate his resurrection and what it means to us as people desperately in need of God's love.

One of the key points from the Easter story is the relationship between Jesus and the two prisoners alongside him on the cross. One of them asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his Kingdom, and as a result is forgiven for his past sins, given new life in the present and hope for the future. He is not given new life because the prisoner is blameless, you understand, but because Jesus is. In short we do not get what we deserve, and thank God for that!

I was reflecting on this message recently when thinking about the way we treat our prisoners nowadays. As a former member of the Bar and the Bench, I recognise that some criminals should never be released from prison. This might be because of who they are, and not just because of the nature of the crimes they have committed. Prisoners need to be fully rehabilitated and transformed. Even for those who find salvation in God, they must realise there is a human cost to be paid on this earth and in many cases that may mean permanent incarceration.

However there are many prisoners, especially young women, who commit lesser offences who will one day be released back into society. How does our system treat them?

Of course, it is common sense to say that criminals should not be rewarded for being in prison. It is patently not right when we read stories in the papers of institutions that offer inmates things such as cable TV and Playstations, and other non-essential items that many outside of prison cannot afford for their families despite working hard and sticking to the rules. But at the same time, we need to understand that prison is not just about punishment, it is about rehabilitation. For the purpose of punishment is penitence.

It goes without saying that it would be better if people did not become criminals in the first place. We need to teach young people to value themselves and act responsibly towards others in society, but for many they have been brought up in a culture which says there is no such thing as society, just individualistic greed and self-satisfaction to get us through. Personally, I like the idea of restorative justice and community punishments for low-level offenders. We need to recognise the personal cost of crime. We need to recognise the damage, hurt and pain crime causes to victims and their families. And we need to recognise the cost to the wider society.

I remember the emotional story in South Africa of a mother at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing about her son's murder. The police officer who had ordered the brutal killing was there, shamefacedly listening to the details of what he and his colleagues had done. At the end the room was quiet. The chair of the commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, asked the woman if she had anything to say to the man who had killed her son.

She responded: "I am very full of sorrow. So I am asking you now – come with me to the place where he died, pick up in your hands some of the dust of the place where his body lay, and feel in your soul what it is to have lost so much. And then I will ask you one thing more. When you have felt my sadness, I want you to do this. I have so much love, and without my son, that love has nowhere to go. So I am asking you – from now on, you be my son, and I will love you in his place." And the policeman did become as her son.

Free pardon does not undervalue the damage caused by our sin. Jesus's action on the cross was the supreme example of restorative justice. And in response we must take the responsibility which love and truth lay on us.

As the tag-line for The Shawshank Redemption says: "Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free." We are all called to face the fear within us – not only the fear of the hurt done to us and the way of life to which we have become attached, but the fear also of our own unacknowledged capacity for hatred and for division. To recognise and confront those fears is, for me, fundamental for a civilised society.

Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York