Do you see me? Or are you just looking?

We are drawing to the end of Prisons Week (Nov 20th-26th) – something organised to promote prayer for all those involved in the nation’s prisons. The theme of the week this year is “Do you see me? Or are you just looking?”. This draws attention to the fact that prisoners are constantly watched and under surveillance, they are rarely seen. It is indeed very difficult to “see” someone in prison. There is a real security rigmarole involved in visiting and visiting rights are severely limited (part of the punishment). But the most fundamental obstacle preventing the prisoner being seen is that in being locked up they are locked out of society.

Guard Tower and Prison Walls

Guard Tower & Walls of Robben Island
which locked Nelson Mandela out for
18 years but which didn’t prevent him
from being brother through
walls of prejudice and hatred.

(photoby Joe Barbosa)

I have often invited prayer for prisoners (there are currently 87,652 men and women in UK prisons – a rise of 2424 from 12 months ago). I am usually met with the hostility of a few who insist we should be only praying for the victims of crime. They follow the sight line of the secular media: the prisoner should not be seen and his or her cry should not be echoed in our prayer.

This week, someone was telling me of her pre-ordination placement experience in a “category A” women’s prison. She recalls her feelings of consternation after her first Communion in the chapel with a congregation of about eight when she was introduced to her table companions – including a much villified serial killer. This group of women have been seen by God. They have heard good news and a certain freedom even though they now they must be locked out of a society that wishes for them only to have bad news for a harsh and punishing sentence.

This is profoundly challenging because we share the same bread, and we drink from the same cup. We have been called companions (companions are friends who particularly share bread) and brothers and sisters. It is usually hard to imagine sitting at a table with people who aren’t our friends but God’s choice challenges these preconceptions. Instead we are challenged to see and recognise brothers, sisters and companions on the far side of dividing walls.

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