The UK’s criminal justice system has been in crisis for some years – a crisis which has become particularly acute in our over-crowded, over-stretched and under-staffed prisons and probation services. Against this background it was good to hear that the NI Justice Minister has temporarily released a number of prisoners in an effort to control the spread of coronavirus in prisons. Inmates with two months or less still to serve will be released on temporary licence in stages. Releasing the prisoners early is a humane response to overcrowding in prisons. It is hoped that it will prevent both staff and prisoners becoming infected with the Covid 19 virus. “Doubling up” has been increasingly used in NI because of an increase in the prison population. That so many have to share cells is a failure of the practice of single-celling that was established in principle two centuries ago following the work of the heroic 18th century Christian prison reformer John Howard.

John Wesley described Howard as the greatest man of his time but compared with the slightly later reformer Elizabeth Fry he is relatively little known in Christian circles today. He was a devout non-conformist Christian and worked tirelessly to reform prisons, campaigning for improvements in prison conditions in Britain and Ireland. His first report The State of the Prisons in 1777 included very detailed accounts of the prisons he had visited, including plans and maps, together with detailed instructions on the necessary improvements, especially regarding hygiene and cleanliness, the lack of which was causing many deaths. He was a true European and also visited prisons in many European countries as far afield as Ukraine where he eventually died in 1790 of a prison acquired infection.

His work inspired the founding in 1866 of an Association later to become the ‘Howard League for Penal Reform’ which still campaigns today with the goal of staunching the flow of people into the criminal justice system, advocating for solutions which, where possible, lie beyond the system and use prisons sparingly.

We must also address the problem of our overcrowded prisons earlier in the route to criminal behaviour. Problems begin in early childhood when boys become disaffected with education, lose their sense of worth and get labelled as troublemakers. This is compounded when the emphasis in education favours academic achievement and there are insufficient opportunities for vocational work for school leavers. Family conflict and breakdown, child abuse, time in the care system and drug addiction all play a part as is apparent in the lives of many of the young men featured in the recent BBC NI series ‘Nolan in Hydebank.’

Having high numbers of prisoners is a poor reflection of the state of our society. Is there any possibility that the societal consequences of the pandemic might lead to some changes in this sad situation? Christians have a God who enters the world to help the afflicted and over many years the Christian community has contributed much to the reform of penal institutions and practices. The work of Prison Fellowship is well known in Christian circles visiting prisoners and running restorative justice based victim empathy programmes in prisons. But Christians should also be involved in social justice and advocacy work at different levels in society for that too is part of doing God’s will “on earth as in heaven.” Let us thank God for, actively encourage and pray for wisdom for the Christian people who are at present in positions of leadership and responsibility in the criminal justice system in NI. Pray also that despite the economic climate that is likely to follow the present time of crisis, the crisis in our criminal justice system would not be ignored.

Noel McCune is a retired Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist.

Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.