what does the uniting church need to do for a prison to be closed?

a bit of background about the restorative justice project

The Uniting Church – like many other faiths communities and christian churches in victoria – has had an extensive prison ministry over many years. This includes a team of prison chaplains, and also some post-release care through various Uniting Care agencies. It is, obviously, important work, but it’s a little like putting the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. There’s been a growing commitment over the last few months to broadening our focus – or really, to changing the paradigm out of which we operate, hence the restorative justice project.

[if you’re new to this, wikipedia has an excellent overview of the principles and practice of restorative justice.]

Why is the Uniting Church making this a focus?

theologically… i said in the last post that the prison work had become the question to which the entire alt worship project needed to answer. i was understating the case somewhat – Luke has Jesus beginning his ministry with the verses from Isaiah 58 [Luke 4:16-20], in part to remind us that every part of our ministry – our community life, our worship, our theology – needs to answer first to the blind, the widow, the poor and the prisoner… if our theology, and its outworking, doesn’t first bring freedom to the prisoner [and there are no convincing arguments as to why we shouldn’t take that literally], then it won’t actually bring freedom to anyone [our natural inclination is to reverse that: to get ‘ourselves’ right, and then we’ll ‘do’ justice and compassion].

We link justice to punishment; the bible links it to restoration. We talk about God being pure grace, love and justice; yet when it comes to prisoners we’ll invoke vengeance without a second thought. Sure, it’s prisoners who make it hard to speak of a god of grace, love and justice – but that’s the exact point. it might be hard, but it’s in that context we have to make it work. There are some people i would quite happily judge as irredeemable, but it’s not up to me to do that. If i’m to call myself a person of faith, then i give up the right to judge another person.

sociologically… the politicians keep telling us that crime rates are down in victoria, yet statistics tell us that the rates of imprisonment are higher. The basis of this project is for the Uniting Church to join others involved in this area, to do what it can to reverse that trend. It needs to be said that the aim of this project isn’t to close all prisons. There are some people who need to be kept separate from the community. But for the many prisoners who don’t fit this category, there are other forms of justice that actually restore wholeness – both to them, and to the community they’ve damaged.

so, what does the uniting church need to do for a prison to be closed?

This is not a short term project, obviously. And it needs to be approached from a multitude of angles: for it to work we need to begin conscientising the members of congregations and faith communities to the issue – much like the process that was undertaken with asylum seekers a few years ago… though of course, this is a much less sexy issue, and it’s much harder to do the face to face conversations that helped so much in that issue. We need to begin speaking in a different language – in our theology and our worship. As Jenny said last week, we basically need to convert congregations to a vision of the kingdom of heaven. Alongside that, we need to be talking with politicians, members of the judiciary and the media.

so, the next twelve months looks like this:
gathered events

– we’re beginning with a community justice forum – listening to the groups and people involved in the existing justice system, and in restorative justice already, learning from them, and then discerning what it is that the uniting church can offer to that conversation

– then we’ll launch into other more general educative forums for the uniting church – starting a conversation between prison chaplains and Uniting Care community service agencies, to identify the gaps in the care of people who are moving through and beyond the justice system.

– there’ll also be a couple of forums that are open to members of the public, and church members, in order to get some broader community awareness.

– the commission for mission staff gathering next year will involve Elaine Enns, who is a restorative justice practitioner [she will be in australia with her partner, Ched Myers].


– we’re going to blitz the church newspaper with stories, articles, interviews about restorative justice, and the people affected by the justice system.

– we’re developing a community information pack, including ways people can get involved on an individual and local level – advocating to their local members of parliament, establishing forums for restorative justice in their own context

– i’ll write faith columns about this for the newspaper

humanising the issue

– finding ways to tell stories of people who have been through the prison system [the film project will be part of this]

worship and theology

– workshops, resources, conversations with faith community leaders about the language and imagery we use in worship

That’s just the start of it, and it’s a massive amount of work… but we’ve started on it already, and that’s the most important thing…

Stay tuned, or come along for the ride if you’re able…


  1. Greg the explorer

    Cheryl, this is rgeat stuff – I have long wanted to see the church work toward closing prisons…at least in seeing justice in tyerms of how we bring people back into productinve membership of society – not lock them out and thenm expect them wo work thier own way back in. I’d like to see my own Anglican Church doing something along these lines as well.

    I would like to come along for the ride so if there is anything a former inmate can do to be a part of this please email me

  2. Cheryl – your voice is so needed these days. Keep up the work. It matters. I can’t believe how many politicans here in the States use Christ to win votes among the pro-life contingency and yet they support the death penalty.

  3. Cheryl

    the death penalty / pro life lobby is a weird mixture, becky!

    Greg, i’m pretty sure that Anglicare are involved in restorative justice here – i think i noted that down in some research last week. my notes aren’t here, but by memory it was with kids from juvie. i’ll keep you in touch with what we’re doing, would love to have your feedback and involvement.

  4. Duncan Blandford

    Cuba has a great track record for alternatives to incarceration which produce verifiable results – particularly reduced recidivism rates (something like 6% verses our 90 something percent.)

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