Second chances for ex-offenders through education

Opinion on 28th September 2010

Archbishop of York Praises Lord Longford

Archbishop John Sentamu has spoken of the profound influence Lord Longford had on his own thinking about prison reform and the treatment of offenders. The Uganda-born archbishop, who worked as a barrister before ordination and is a former Longford Lecturer, was delivering the annual Prisoners' Education Trust lecture on the theme of 'Human Responsibility, Independent of Circumstances'. Here is what he said about Lord Longford.

'In forming my views on criminal justice, I have of course been inspired in part by the memory of Lord Longford. Let me remind you of the values of Lord Longford. A man for whom justice, and a passion to help society's outcasts, inspired him to campaign throughout his life for better conditions in our nation's prisons. From as early as the 1930s he was a prison visitor, and to the end of his life he was still going, two and three times a week, to visit the forgotten and despised in jail. In the late 1980s, he was contacted by the solicitor for a young Dutchman, convicted of a drugs offence, sent to Albany prison on the Isle of Wight, suffering from Aids and cut off by his family. Longford was the only person to visit this dying man.

This and many other visits like it which didn't make the headlines like some of his other activities, were evidence of a love and concern for the marginalized which brought succour and relief. He also initiated practical measures to ease offenders' reintegration into society. The New Bridge which he founded in 1955, and which was the first organisation dedicated to ex-prisoners' welfare. In 1970, he established, in New Horizon, the first drop-in centre for homeless teenagers. Until the end, he spent time at New Horizon's offices, caring nothing for the teasing he got from the users, but always anxious to understand what had alienated them from the mainstream.

He also contributed a series of learned reports on penal reform and chaired the committee which, in 1963, recommended the setting-up of the parole system, still the bedrock of the current system. We need more people like Lord Longford. People with a genuine passion for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the Law. Men and women who will sacrifice their own reputations, and social standing, to help those in need. Of course, a focus on reconciliation, restoration and forgiveness is not always a popular approach.

It often gives rise to misunderstanding and anger from victims or their families – and from the wider public at large. We can see this particularly with Longford's desire for Myra Hindley to be rehabilitated. But, though it is vital to respect the anger and damage caused to victims, and communities by crime, Lord Longford recognised that traditional retributive justice was not necessarily the most healthy way forward for building a better society, and better relationships, because feelings of anger and revenge, however understandable, serve further to dislocate our ability to relate to one another as human beings.

Anger always blurs the real human features of those we're angry with. If it didn't, no-one would ever be persuaded to violent action. And so often the anger comes from the sense that I'm not being seen as a human being in the first place.'

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