A Royal Salute?

P1050738 (2)Phil McCarthy
Director
Prison Fellowship of New Zealand

Significant change can have the effect of generating introspection.  In a month or three, I’m going to have a second go at retiring.  I’m a baby-boomer with 38 years central Government experience and more recently, 4 years as CE of a small NGO.

PFNZ has been through a period of adjustment in recent years.  We’re now predominantly focused in the community rather than inside prison walls, and we are returning to our original focus of working through community volunteers.  We work to support the children of prisoners and their caregivers, and  ex-prisoners on release.  We’re a faith-based organisation that largely – but not exclusively – draws our support from Christian churches across the denominational spectrum.

It’s clear how fundamentally counter-cultural this work is becoming.  Compared with the New Zealand I grew up in in the 60s and 70s, it seems as a society we are so much more self-centred, so much less willing to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  Probably, the social issues are more entrenched, and seemingly harder to deal with.  Maybe that has led us as a society to confirm our sense of those in desperate need as impossible cot-cases who have created inter-generational beds they now need to lie in.

We seem to be willing to accept, or worse to deny, child poverty and homelessness that a generation ago would have caused a revolution.  We seem to believe, as Katie Bruce from JustSpeak said here a couple of weeks ago, that it makes more sense to spend a billion dollars on another 1800 prison beds than it does to provide adequate social housing.   Many of those beds are for people who need to be remanded in custody because they have nowhere safe in the community to live!  Absolutely absurd!

Transparently, we believe that we can solve New Zealand’s deep-seated social issues through the Criminal Justice system.  Given the great majority of prisoners are mentally ill, cognitively impaired, drug and alcohol dependent, illiterate and or just simply poor, that’s brain-dead.

We seem, finally, possibly, to be seeing through the neo-liberal nonsense that promised rising tides would lift all boats; even hardworking families working three jobs can’t necessarily afford to put a roof over their heads.  But we don’t seem to know what to do with that knowledge.

Even in parts of the Christian church, certainly in the US, we see so-called ‘Christians’ characterised by anger, fear, exclusion, revenge and an abandonment of the poor in which I can see not a trace of the Jesus of the Gospels.

What to do?

What I’m going to do is volunteer.  I’m going to take up the opportunity PFNZ offers to get alongside prisoners as they transit into the community from prison.  In part, that may be my way of waving two fingers at the prevailing punitive, fearful, self-centred society we have become.  But it’s mostly because I am naïve enough to believe I can make a difference.  That extending a simple hand of friendship, connecting the isolated, and supporting people to become functioning members of the community makes more sense than rejecting and isolating them.

Please join me.  If prisoners and prisoners families aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other opportunities out there.  This is Volunteer Week.  Just do it!!

This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices

ComVoices  actively promotes the value that community sector organisations and their people, both paid and unpaid, add to New Zealand’s economic and social wellbeing through information, and political advocacy and dialogue.

Click here for our website:  http://comvoices.org.nz/