Kenneth Clarke, the new Justice Secretary, is keen to bring down the prison population. There are good arguments to do so. I was reminded of the whole punitive versus rehabilitative question by a recent email concerning my friend Russell L Ford.
Russell has been in prison in Alabama for 23 years. I have been in touch with him for a decade through a scheme called “First Century Christian Ministries” which links Catholics with Catholic prisoners through pen-friendship. You are not allowed to ask your pen-friend what he/she is locked up for, but Russell volunteered to me that he is supposed to have ‘hurt someone very badly’. The question is: did he actually do it?
He had a blackout at the time and cannot remember anything of what happened. The police needed a quick conviction; he was in the wrong place; then was assigned a lawyer who was clearly prejudiced against him. Currently there is new evidence before the courts that should exonerate him.
My point in writing this is that throughout his sentence Russell has been a model prisoner; he has never whinged about the likely injustice of his case except to say that “nearly a quarter of a century of living on concrete and steel in a place where cruelty and violence to body and soul are the order of the day has worn me down”.
Included in a recent book about converts, Chosen, edited by Donna Steichen, he relates that it was the influence of a saintly prison chaplain that turned his life around. Once converted, he has helped hundreds of fellow inmates transform their lives and has worked with Karl Keating of Catholic Answers to produce a book of his own, “The Missionary’s Catechism”.
Russell asks for sympathisers to start a novena for his release to St Bartholomew, his Confirmation saint, whose feast-day is August 24. Readers of this blog who don’t do God – or prayer – might think of him kindly as he awaits the decision of the 11th federal circuit court in Atlanta, Georgia.
Writing about Russell reminds me that August 4 is the sorrowful anniversary of the day in 1944 when another person held in captivity was finally discovered by the Gestapo and put on a cattle truck to her death. Anne Frank was entirely innocent, except for the “crime” of being born a Jew. Her two years and one month hidden with her family and others in the secret annexe of a warehouse in Amsterdam will always be remembered because of her ‘Diary’, later found discarded on the floor of the hideout by Miep Gies, the heroic Christian woman who helped keep her Jewish neighbours alive during those long weary months.