‘They must pay for their crimes!’ And they should. ‘If you do the crime, then do the time!’ Rightly so. But there is a caveat: we call them the Beatitudes. It concerns the hungry, the thirsty, orphans, the sick – no problem so far. But then, we hesitate at the inclusion of strangers, and we wave a definite no with our fingers when it comes to prisoners.
Even two weeks ago, when Senator Paul Richards joined that long list of voices speaking out about the horrible conditions under which prisoners labour, many would have turned up their eyes in indifference: “Let them wallow in their crimes!”
But for we who are Christians, we ought to remember that we follow a God-human leader who in Matthew 25 pointedly reminds us we must not forget prisoners. We are not free to disregard the Lord on this point. Has the Church at times been too preoccupied with the rights of prisoners and not enough with the rights of victims? Of course! The movie Dead Man Walking brings that out. The nun Sr Helen Prejean who was trying to get Matthew Poncelet’s death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, came to a new level of consciousness when she realised she was not sufficiently sensitive to the pain of the families of the two children that Poncelet had murdered. She is a symbol of the Church, always maturing in justice and mercy.
The Church must be sensitive to the difficulty victims face in piecing their lives back together, in obtaining justice and securing closure. The Church must be mindful of the need for extensive psychological counselling so wounds perpetrated by criminals may be healed with time, and prayer.
And yet, it is also true that we have to defend the rights of prisoners whether we proceed along the lines of theological ethics or purely philosophical principles. Philosophically, we do not rise higher as a nation if we choose to dehumanise those who dehumanised us. We must believe in a higher grace.
This higher grace includes a more urgent concern for those in remand who are innocent until proven guilty. We were told only two weeks ago about a lethal prison break in Guyana and the real likelihood of it happening here. In May, we heard of the need for $55 million to fix toilets in the remand prison. For the umpteenth time we have heard of ‘slop pails’ still being used. How can prisoners have respect for themselves in these conditions much less for one another?
There is also the very touchy matter of the imbroglio that involves the Chief Justice, the Judicial and Legal Service Commission (JLSC) and Madame Justice Marcia Ayers Caesar. Or at least, that is how this laboriously debated matter has been presented.
But there are some ‘dispensables’ sitting in the background – quietly side-lined in most of the discussions – 53 prisoners on remand whose cases have to be reheard, start afresh. Some of them have been on remand for over ten years. This is rather disturbing. It does precious little for the reintegration of prisoners and strikes as a grave miscarriage of justice.