Friday, May 16, 2008

John and Ted

I met John in prison. I was chaplain, he an inmate. I had kept publicly on the right side of the law. He had been caught briefly on the wrong one.

John's sixteen year old daughter had fallen in with a bad lot. Her boyfriend who was a bit older and should have known a bit better, had introduced her to a new circle of friends. One of the things they did together was inject heroin. In a vulnerable state he had 'taken advantage' of her and she was pregnant.

John, a man with no history of or known capacity for personal violence, had reacted like any father might. He hit the boyfriend - hard, with the nearest object to hand - an empty beer bottle. It caused the young man severe though short-term injury. Most people, including the prison officers who came to know John, thought his outburst perfectly excusable. They made life inside for him as easy as possible, even supplying him with an internet connection so that he could continue to manage his successful business of waste-disposal from his prison cell.

John was a Roman Catholic. He spoke to Father David, the RC chaplain. Two things worried him. He feared the incident had exposed a tendency to violence in his nature which contradicted his previous self-awareness. Secondly, he was not able to feel sorry for what he'd done. Father David quoted St Paul writing that our lower nature is often in conflict with our higher or spiritual nature. John found no consolation in this.

When John told me I tried to reassure him. He was plainly not a man given casually to violence. As for feeling sorry, it seemed to me that his concern about this was ample evidence of the kind of moral sense he feared he might have lost. If he couldn't feel sorry for the injury he had visited upon the miscreant, he did at least regret not feeling sorry, and could offer this to God in confession of his sins.

As you will appreciate John was more troubled by matters of moral motivation than the average inmate. He was a decent man, and a good Catholic. But there was one area where his conscience acquired what you might call a little elasticity. In his impending interview with the parole board, which could lead to his early release, his contrition would be as impressive as it was false; anything to get him out of that hell-hole and back to the family he missed so much. Honesty before God in prayer mattered deeply to him; honesty to civil servants less.

Truth-telling in prison can get you into a lot of trouble - and keep you there.

Ask Ted. Ted was a 'lifer'. He had strangled his wife in a drunken rage. That was fifteen years ago, and he too was due to appear before the parole board. If he behaved well and convinced them that he was no longer 'angry with women' he might be moved to another, more open, prison, a prelude to his eventual release. One member of the board was, as he put, right snotty to him - made him feel like a piece of shit. It happened to be a woman. He didn't like being treated like that, and he said so. If he could have held his tongue, shown less spirit, been more humble, seemed more sorry, he might have made it. But he couldn't. So he had to stay inside, for the offence of emotional honesty.

1 comment:

Sue said...

Oh, the system, the system, the stupid bloody system :(

Good post.