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Social Justice

Is there room for hope in prison?

A reflection by Fr. Silvio Alaimo, who has been ministering in Trieste prisons for 20 years.

It is a common, widespread, and popular concept that the harsh conditions of prison life are inevitable, indeed, just, since they are an integral part of the punishment that those who have been guilty of a crime must endure. It is an idea of reparation as a punishment that fits a crime: you have made someone suffer so you must suffer in the same way, indeed, more. Only in this way can the victim have “satisfaction” for the wrong suffered. This principle, which differs little from that of “revenge,” goes hand in hand with another judicial mantra: certainty of punishment. Translated: the offender must pay all the way through and suffer until the last day as stipulated by the sentence. No concession, no alternative opportunities.

I never cease to be amazed (and a little indignant) when I realize that this view is based on a completely upside-down perspective of reality: both with respect to the state and its right to condemn and punish, and with respect to the people affected by this view, and, last but not least, at least for me, from the perspective of a Christian life. From the earliest years of my experience as chaplain in the Trieste prison, during my meetings with prisoners, I was and always am receiving professions of innocence. Everyone, but really everyone, proclaims themselves as such. Initially I did not know how to interpret these convictions. Then, over time, as I went deep into the tragic stories of those people who had nothing, I understood their astonishment at such harshness, coldness, inhumanity, which cannot be inflicted for any kind of wrong committed. “I am innocent.” Precisely in that affirmation of their innocence, I also caught a legitimate aspiration: they did not want to hide guilt from me; theirs was a tale of hope. Over the years, I have made this reversed perspective my own, completely opposite to that of the current world and the judicial machine: a perspective that I recognize as absolutely Christian. One who has made a mistake and fallen must be able to get back up, must find a hand to help him rise again. If he has caused suffering, it must not be forgotten that the pain belongs to him as well: falling, failures, are never without suffering. Can prolonging and institutionalising this condition of suffering really benefit anyone? Or does it become cruel torture towards a person who has the right to continue his journey, not to lose self-confidence and hope in the future, to live with dignity the life he has received as a gift?

Among Pope Francis’ many speeches on the lives of imprisoned people, I like to recall this one: “Prisons always have a window and a horizon … no one can change his life if he does not see a horizon.” How much pain, for me, to see that these windows are missing, that they are walled off by the absurd hotchpotch of a thicket of laws, strings and ties. A horizon is missing, to look beyond, to not cease living. When I cross the threshold of the prison, I am aware that I am entering an environment of confinement and containment, aimed at separating, dividing, isolating, distancing. I meet there, people abandoned, forgotten, often alienated in a condition of no project, no perspective. They are locked up in a non-space, a non-time, they no longer know anything about themselves or what awaits them, they no longer know anything about their families, their origins, the world they come from where hope was already precluded. They enter a container that afflicts them, having lived in other containers, those of the suburbs, which are often real open-air prisons. Again, in the words of Pope Francis, it is possible to describe the negativity of the prison institute: “culture of discard,” “spaces to lock up in oblivion,” “places of depersonalization.” What good is such a reality? Who does it benefit? What does the affliction of people bring to society?

Many of these people whom I meet personally have lost hope, if they had any at the beginning of their lives: we are often born marked and predestined.

I do not want to lose hope, but I struggle to give them an answer, I feel the weight of their call for help, their need to rely on, to believe in something, in someone. I place their burden on myself, aware of the enormity of the task and the impossibility of meeting the challenge alone. Those walls, however, must be torn down, because they prevent relationship and produce abandonment. Those windows must be reopened to the world, so that they become possible relational spaces of true life. It must be ascertained that those who go through that experience, at the end of the journey, do not find themselves in the same tragic spot from which they started.

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