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Mercy and rehabilitation in Britain's prison system

Crime, punishment and the dynamics of mercy – Sara Hyde explores the role mercy could and should play in rehabilitating offenders.

I cannot remember the first time I consciously experienced mercy. It’s a word that was around in my childhood. We said it in church, ‘goodness and mercy are going to follow us every day of our lives.’ Maybe I experienced leniency rather than punishment for hitting my younger brother, yet for me a full understanding of this word has only developed in adulthood and flourished through prolonged exposure to the criminal justice system and those affected by it.

One definition of mercy is that of undeserved clemency: the showing of compassion or benevolence, especially to one under your power. Pope Francis says Jesus is the human face of God’s mercy. Being in prisons involves being proximate to people who often recognise their need for mercy more than most. This has been a humbling experience from which I’ve learned and learned again. We all need mercy, whoever we are. There is immense freedom in acknowledging our need for it and being open to receive it. The way we view crime, punishment and rehabilitation is connected to our view of mercy and our experience of its dynamics in our lives.

It was as a teenager that I started to experience the mercy and lovingkindness of God more profoundly. I was behaving transgressively, recklessly (perhaps just teenagerly?) and this was accompanied by huge feelings of guilt and then an acknowledgment within myself that I needed forgiveness, I needed God’s mercy. I was beginning to develop a visceral, lived experience of the dynamics of mercy, despite simultaneously struggling to plumb the depths of Portia’s famous speech on the subject in The Merchant of Venice for my GCSE. Then something incredibly serious happened. Our very normal friend – let’s call him Gary – had been charged with kidnap and attempted rape. We were utterly shocked. Our friend Gary who had given me lifts at all hours of the day and night, who was gentle and kind, who we spoke to as if he was ‘one of the girls’ because he was such a good listener and something of a sage to our 17-year-old selves. 

Mercy doesn’t do labels. Instead it treats us as individuals and calls out the best in us.

In committing this crime, had he simultaneously cut the tie of friendship with us all? So unspeakable was the act and so huge was the feeling of betrayal that accompanied it. We thought we knew Gary. It turns out we didn’t. I was 17 and struggling to assimilate seemingly irreconcilable character traits within the frame of one human being.

I knew that I had received mercy from God that had eased my shame. I believed love was a powerful force: I decided these factors required me to continue to be this person’s friend. I was also a teenager, navigating life with a tendency to hyper-responsibility and over-identifying with others’ difficulties. It was messy. I wrote to Gary. I went to visit him on remand. The experience was a crash course in prisons and how the whole thing worked. I had no idea. 

This series of events stitched something into my heart and disrupted some easy labels forever. Gary was an only child. He was also a son and a lover of indie music, as well as a prisoner. I learnt then that humans are so much more complicated than one label naming the worst deed you’ve ever done. Mercy doesn’t do labels. Instead it treats us as individuals and calls out the best in us.

This experience, and a similar one as an adult, changed me. Both crimes had very real victims, they were heard in Crown Courts, guilty verdicts were returned and custodial sentences were rightly imposed. Both men were damaged people and went on to damage other people. But both men were made in the image of God. God teaches me that the cross is enough for every sin and that in his mercy, we are all the same before that cross. It’s the great leveller. God sees me the same way as he sees these men but humanly, there needs to be a consequence for actions as serious as these. The unfairness of mercy means this is not straightforward territory.

The dynamics of mercy

The first crucial thing about the dynamics of mercy is the more you give of it the more you receive or that the more you allow yourself to receive it the more you can give. A heart that is grateful for abundant mercy finds it hard to deny mercy to others. Learning to receive mercy from God and others can take a lifetime of practice. In the beatitudes Jesus declares, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’ (Mt 5.7).

There is a direct correlation between being a receiver and a giver of mercy, they have a cyclical and mutually reinforcing relationship. This is indicated again in Luke 6, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you’ (vv. 36–38). There is a gauntlet thrown down here to be generous in giving mercy. To engage with the cycle: understanding the mercy we have each received, to let that sink into our bones, so that the natural overflowing of that mercy to those around us can happen. 

God’s mercy loves me into wholeness

God’s mercy loves me into wholeness. His mercy is radical, life-changing, powerful, core to who Jesus is and the message of the Father. Many of us still have a journey to travel on receiving mercy and letting it penetrate our being and enable a core identity that is beloved child rather than wretched sinner. We know punishment too well, reaching for it first for ourselves and others. The more we experience being loved by a merciful God, the more we want others to experience that same love. The foundational principle for the dynamics of mercy is that God is rich in infinite love. If God treats us like this, then this is the blueprint for how we treat others, whether or not they have committed a criminal offence. 

Mercy also operates as the other side of the coin to justice. One reason that we send people to prison is the idea that justice can be served. There is a demonstrable act that pays for or rebalances the wrong committed. Justice in its purest form makes all things right, equitable, brings things back into balance and this is what mercy does too. Mercy restores and fills in where there is deficit and lack. Both concepts are about wholeness.

Justice in its purest form makes all things right

The entirety of the Bible shows God reaching out to reconcile us to him, to reconcile the world to himself. We live in a time post-Pentecost where we see glimpses of heaven and the Kingdom of God breaking into our earthly experience. This is a taste of what is to come when the whole of creation will be fully reconciled to God. He requires us to love mercy as part of his guide to life as stated in Micah 6, pairing it with the other side of the coin, ‘He has shown you, human beings, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (v. 8). 

We cannot begin to grasp how mercy could play a key role in the rehabilitation of offenders unless we understand the dynamic of mercy in the universe and know that we are all offenders. There is no them and us, because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God or we are all beloved children. We all need rehabilitation and the principles of that journey of healing are the same whoever you are.

A journey of healing

How do we see God treat people involved in crimes in the Bible? Three key biblical figures are involved in murders, but they go on to lead the Jewish people or the early Church and write most of the Bible. Moses brutally beats an Egyptian to death (Ex 2), David organised Uriah’s assassination motivated by his adultery (2 Sam 11), Paul, when he was Saul, is introduced to us as supervising and approving the death of Steven (Acts 8.1) and repeatedly makes reference to his persecution of Christians. Mercy is extended again and again. Their crimes do not mean God chooses not to use them. Instead, Moses, David and Paul become famous for things other than killing and God uses them in astonishing ways.

Bringing ideas of justice and mercy to a broken, humanly devised system of justice is difficult. We need a justice system where there is a human act of retribution, like being electronically tagged or sent to prison, but our current prison system is a damaging mess – assaults, self-harm and deaths in custody are at all-time highs.1 Overcrowding is endemic. Staff are fewer in number, stretched and often inexperienced. The conditions in April 2016’s Wormwood Scrubs’ inspection were reported as Dickensian. Justice and mercy cannot flourish here. There is little in our criminal justice structures that promotes a bringing back into balance, a moral rightness, justice, let alone interventions that restore, reconcile and repair. 

Over 70 per cent of prisoners have two or more mental health problems, 24 per cent of people in prison are care leavers

When someone commits a crime it is an act that carries personal responsibility whilst being situated in a particular time in history, in a particular set of social circumstances. Having worked eight years in and around our justice system, I have heard numerous hideous life-stories – litanies of childhood abuse, neglect, being sold into prostitution as an adolescent, being hospitalised from violence. Most perpetrators of crime are victims long before they are perpetrators. These repeated traumas are often accompanied by resultant mental health problems, self-harm, suicide attempts and/or becoming addicted to drugs to deal with the pain of this existence.

The overwhelming majority of people in prison come from less affluent parts of our society, only sexual offences draw from a more even demographic. There is an ethnic disproportionality throughout the system.2 Statistics bear out my empirical experiences. Over 70 per cent of prisoners have two or more mental health problems, 24 per cent of people in prison are care leavers, around 50 per cent of women in prison have been in an abusive relationship and officially reported statistics show about a third have suffered childhood sexual abuse, though, anecdotally, I’d put the rate far higher than that.3

State-run institutions are heaving with pain and often mitigate against rehabilitation and restoration. Within all this, how can mercy get a foothold? How can justice reign? Prisons should be places where mercy is practiced and personified, addressing lack. The punishment is deprivation of liberty, not additional hardship once inside. Did you miss out on educational opportunities? Here they are. Did you miss out on healthcare? Here it is. Being able to access high quality restorative justice interventions – where victims can meet their perpetrators – can have a big impact in journeys away from crime, as the human impact is acknowledged, explored and apologised for: both sides extending mercy.4

Mercy isn’t interested in where you’ve been but where you are going

The purpose of prison is to (re)habilitate people, to provide a place where lack can be addressed, to prepare people for life as law abiding citizens, as people with a stake in society, with a reason to follow societal codes. As Christians we are well placed to understand the paradigm. God meets us where we are and meets us with love. This should be the template if we want to see prisons that enable people to live differently, but it is something that seems very far away in many prisons at present.

What is the role of mercy once someone has left prison? Mercy isn’t interested in where you’ve been but where you are going. So many people have told me that the real sentence started the day they left prison – judgement, shame, rejection, distrust from employers, family and friends. Ephesians 2 tells us, ‘But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ’ (verses 4–5). Mercy pursues us before we acknowledge we need it and then gives us hope and something to live for. There are a minority of crimes that then carry lifelong restrictions. We need to be wise in the practical implications of some people’s post-prison licence conditions whilst offering friendship and an understanding of what is helpful and safe on the road to recovery.

Mercy pursues us before we acknowledge we need it and then gives us hope and something to live for

As part of the Fabian Women’s Network I work with people after release from prison. We only work with those who have been on a journey of processing what happened and are able to own their part in it, even if it was in the midst of a barrage of hideous circumstances. Mercy gives us space to take responsibility for our actions without fear of being shamed. Mercy sets us free from the powerless space of victimhood into owning our actions and lives. As an organisation we fight to champion and support people. We are often the first to tell them they can do it or to believe in them as a worthwhile human being. We set the bar high and time and again, with the right support, see people excel. Our reoffending rate is under 5 per cent.

What does mercy for a perpetrator mean for a victim of crime? God is passionate about humans. This means God cares about the victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crime. As a person of peace, a follower of the king of love, of course I want there to be less crime and therefore fewer victims and witnesses living with the aftermath of others’ crimes. However, we will not reduce reoffending rates through harsher sentences or more use of prison.5 Instead, offenders need to have hope for the future and develope pro-social identities and narratives about their life. These things are profoundly situated in relationship.6 The cross means that we don’t have to take the harsh sentence or full imprisonment but we can have hope for the future, we can be transformed into something more beautiful each day by being in relationship with the relational trinity and other people who sharpen and humble us on our journey. ‘Surely goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life’ (Psalm 23.6). Using both these perspectives enables us to imagine a just and merciful system.

Mercy gives us space to take responsibility for our actions without fear of being shamed

To know Jesus is to know mercy. If we can campaign and work to make our prisons places of healing and not criminogenic warehouses of death and despair, we will see the crime rate plummet. If we as Christians and citizens dare to hope in those who are released back into our communities, journeying alongside to enable potential to be realised rather than keeping our distance in case criminality is catching, we will see crime plummet. If we work towards alleviating the drivers of so much crime – inequality, poverty, the care system, broken, scant mental health provision, decent addiction services – we will see crime plummet. God never meets us with wrath, that is our blueprint for interaction with others and to create legislations and systems that usher in shalom and resurrection, not a further descent into hell. The whole system is in need of mercy. God is redeeming all of creation. This also includes our institutions and we need to work for the in-breaking of the Kingdom, of mercy, in these systems.

Sara Hyde is the vice-chair of the Fabian Women’s Network and a member of the Ministry of Justice public board that appoints Magistrates in Central and South London. She works with young women in custody and in the community.

4. For more information on restorative justice practices, see
5. A 2012 National Audit Office briefing stated that there was no correlation between the rate of crime committed and the level of imprisonment, p.26
6. See S Maruna Making Good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives (London: American Psychological Association, 2001).

This article was first published in the Summer 2016 edition of The Bible in Transmission. You can receive future issues of the journal for free by subscribing here.


Author: Bible Society, 7 October 2016 (Last updated: 10 October 2016)

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