Random thoughts, poems, jottings, and as it says, musings. About anything and everything!
Sunday, 1 March 2015
Rehabilitation and Forgiveness - Part 2
Rehabilitation and Forgiveness - Part 2
There is a view of human nature which I call the “11-plus idea”. It is the idea, which was also behind the 11 plus exam back in the 1960s and 1970s, than human nature is very fixed. If someone does something wrong, they are never allowed to forget it. It hangs like an albatross around their neck.
The notion of rehabilitation is now enshrined in law. There is a concept called “spent sentences”, where a sentence is deemed to have been spent after a particular amount of time, depending on the severity of the sentence, and also, when applying for a job, the nature of the job. The law tempers justice with mercy. It does not wipe the slate clean for people who may still pose a significant risk to society, but it does now allow for the fact that people change, and learn from mistakes.
I remember in the 1980s, when I used to chat to a man who had been to prison. He had made a mistake, accepting stolen property, and I think had been sentence to three months. He even mentioned it once to me – that I still saw him as a crook. It was clearly something which was a burden to him, and in a small island like Jersey, where people do not forget, that was understandable. I reassured him, and told him that I thought he had made a mistake, he had paid his debt to society, and no, I didn’t regard him as a crook. A number of years later, he asked me for a reference, which I gave for him. Apart from that one mistake, his life had been blameless. And I am sure he had learnt from that. I felt privileged and humbled that he trusted me and could ask me for a reference.
Mark Rylance, currently playing Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall on TV, was speaking on Desert Island Discs how they put on a play for those inside Broadmore. Some of those had killed loved ones, and had to come to terms with that, with whom they were. The play was Hamlet, and in a modern dress version. They were concerned that the subject matter might prove difficult for people who had committed crimes of a similar nature to those within the play, of murders within close knit relationships. But in fact, it enabled those inmates to open up and talk more freely; because the play was distanced for them, it gave them an opportunity to talk about it, and perhaps from that an opportunity for hope.
Of course society has to take steps to keep itself safe, and inadequate oversight and premature release of some prisoners has led to tragedies as they have committed murder again. But even within the confines of an institution like Broadmore, even if they might be judged by the law to always pose a risk to the public, what the law decides should not be the basis for our condemnation. Society needs to be protected, but we must not write these people off.
One of my favourite films is the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, starring Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud and Karl Malden as Harvey Shoemaker. Stroud is a rebel, sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for murder. He was a pimp at 18, and had shot and killed a barman who had attacked one of his prostitutes. He was known in prison as an extremely dangerous inmate, and killed a guard. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Serving solitary confinement, initially at Leavenworth prison, a turning point came in 1920, when he found a nest with three injured sparrows in the prison yard, and began raising them. He acquired a collection of some 300 canaries. He was allowed to keep them because of a radical prison-reforming warden, and his studies led him to produce the book “Diseases of Canaries” in 1933. This was an astounding book, meticulously researched, and led to him gaining the respect of scientists studying bird disaeases.
He was later transferred to Alcatraz, where the prison authorities would not permit his birds, but there studied law and history, and wrote two books, Bobbie, an autobiography, and Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons. They could not be published until after his death.
But the prison service itself is often in need of reform. Stroud was able to highlight what conditions could be like for a prisoner, and pave the way for prison reform. It is forgotten by those who think prisons should be grim forbidding places, as they were in Victorian England, that the most essential thing you remove from a prisoner is their liberty.
When Robert Stroud was dying, he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri where he remained until his death. He was never freed, because he was assessed by a psychiatrist, who assessed him as brilliant, but still a danger to the public. But his life was an example of what can be achieved, even given such limitations.
We don’t have physical prison cells, but we are often imprisoned by fear, by stress, by the demands of modern living. Some people are trapped by depression. But the stories of people like Robert Stroud show us that even in circumstances where there seems no hope, the spirit of hope can enter in, just as it did when those sparrows, bruised and broken, flew into his life.