O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
“I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David” (“Isaiah 22:22)
“to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (Isaiah 42:7)
“…I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” (Matthew 25.43)
Having served for a time as a magistrate I have had opportunity to visit some of Britain’s prisons. What struck me most about those who came before the courts, and who are incarcerated in our nation’s prisons, is that these are ordinary people. People with stories and families and often complicated lives. There were occasions where I wondered if confronted by a similar set of circumstances encountered by a defendant if I too might have found myself in the secure dock in a courtroom. There were times too where I learned to surf the wave of my own emotional response to be able to balance what might be reasonable expectations by the public, community safety, the sentencing framework magistrates and judges are required to work within, the interests of justice particularly in respect of victims of crime, and the story of the person before the court at that time.
For the most part the Bible refers to prisons in a matter-of-fact way. References are made to people being imprisoned without judgement about how or why. The antiphon we take for our reflection today picks up a theme that runs through the Bible that prisons are places of darkness to be freed from. No judgement is made whether the prisoner deserves their freedom or not.
There is a tendency to read verses like this in a metaphorical sense that everyone has some sort of mental/emotional/spiritual prison from which they need release to thrive. Perhaps this is so. But what about people incarcerated in actual prisons, without getting into moral or political judgements about why they are there? Almost everyone incarcerated will one day return to life in the outside community. How should we respond to those with prison experience in their story?
It is worthy of reflection that for the most serious offences what society takes from people who commit them is their time. Release brings the return of being able to control one’s own time. Time is one of the biggest gifts we can give and the most serious we can take.
Light of the World, you experienced spiritual and literal darkness. We pray for people incarcerated, for those who work in prisons, and for those involved in the administration of justice. Help all who are caught in their own darkness to find a way to the warmth of the light. We pray for victims of crime that they may find peace. In the name of the Prince of Peace.
The Rev’d Sarah Moore, Transition Champion for the National Synod of Scotland, and Assistant Clerk of the General Assembly