Treat prisoners with compassion, don't be 'judgemental'

People must stop being so judgemental about those serving prison sentences, the Moderator of the General Assembly has said.

Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair said one of the "brightest and smartest" men he has ever met spent many years behind bars and anyone can have their lives turned around by the grace of God.

He said his friend is a committed Christian and walking a very different path, helping people who are in the same position that he was in.

 Prisoners Week 2020.
The theme of Prisoners Week 2020 is Not Alone.

Dr Fair spoke out to mark Prisoner's Week 2020 which is a church-led initiative aimed at stimulating discussion, highlighting concerns and sharing hope in prisons and communities across Scotland.

Rev Sheena Orr, chairwoman of the Prisoner's Week Trust, said the COVID-19 restrictions had provided the general public with a "little glimpse into what isolation can mean".

The theme of Prisoner's Week, which is being held online for the first time due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year is "Not Alone".

Sessions are being held every day between the 15th and 22nd of November including one to help convicted people to unlock their potential.

A play called ‘Insiders', filmed inside HMP Shotts, explores friendship, family, faith and doing time during lockdown.

There are several video conferencing sessions aimed at supporting the families of loved ones who are serving time for crimes they committed.

Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair
Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair.

Dr Fair said: "One of the brightest, smartest men I have ever known spent many years, from his late teens to his late 30s, in prison.

"His life went down the wrong track from a very early age and got progressively worse during his teens.

"A wrong decision here and one there led to all kinds of problems for him."

Dr Fair said the man's life was a mess but his congregation at St Andrew's Parish Church in Arbroath, Angus supported him and his partner.

"He left the prison for the last time some years ago and is now doing brilliantly well," he added.

"The support of the church was crucial for him in getting to where he is now.

"We need to move on from judgment, from wagging our fingers and shaking our heads.

"From attitudes that ‘they made their own bed and better lie in it', ‘it is what they deserve'.

"Yes, we need a criminal justice system but for Christians it is not for us to judge.

Amazing Grace

"Speaking of those who would inherit the Kingdom of God, Jesus said ‘I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me'.

"Christians today need to pay heed to that and believe that by amazing grace, anyone can have their life turned round."

Dr Fair said there were many volunteering opportunities available for people to help and support those in need.

"I would urge you to look into those possibilities, to find ways in which you can make a difference," he added.

"During this Prisoner's Week 2020, I encourage you to do just that and thank all of those already involved in this very valuable ministry."

Rev Sheena Orr
Rev Sheena Orr

Mrs Orr is a Scottish Prison Service Chaplaincy Advisor (Church of Scotland) and provides 12 hours a week chaplaincy at HMYOI and Cornton Vale Women's prison.

She said the theme is an assurance to those inside that there are people thinking about them, praying for them and supporting them wherever possible.

"I think we have all learned a little more about what it means to be locked up during lockdown," she added.

"Certainly for those of us on the outside who have been locked up in our homes, it has given us a little glimpse into what isolation can mean.

"For those inside prison it has been particularly difficult with longer hours locked up in cells, less activities and less access to family and friends."

Break into darkest of cells

Mrs Orr said the challenge for people was how can they "be there" for people in prison and support them after they have been released.

"How can we show compassion to families affected by imprisonment and show we care even when a physical presence is not possible," she added.

"We believe that God's presence can break into the darkest of cells and He uses us to demonstrate that loving presence to one another."