Everybody deserves a second chance
Robert Ashton has made the acquaintance of a man who needs to be given the opportunity to rebuild his life, and suggests that we should have a compassionate spirit in such circumstances.
A few months ago I wrote an article for Quaker magazine The Friend, about the earth-sheltered eco-home we’re planning to build in rural Norfolk. I’m told it will be one of the most energy efficient homes in the country. I’ll be writing a book about our journey to a life free of fossil fuels. The article prompted several positive comments from Friends, with one or two phoning me to offer their encouragement.
But what moved me most was the handwritten letter that arrived a week or two later. It was written by Richard, a man currently serving an eight year sentence. He had become a Quaker while in prison and had a professional interest in water-saving technology which he thought might be useful for our project.
I was curious to learn why he was in prison, so googled his name and discovered some lurid reports of his court hearing. One described him as a ‘ruthless sexual predator’ and another described him as a ‘pervert’ who had been ‘caged for eight years.’ I wrote back, thanking him for his interest in my project, and described my own journey to becoming a Quaker. I mentioned in closing that I am a volunteer with Circles UK, a charity that supports former sex offenders re-establish themselves in the community at the end of their sentence, and suggested he might find it helpful to join a Circle when he leaves prison.
He wrote back thanking me for my willingness to correspond, saying that he had in general found Quakers to be ‘magnanimous’ in accepting him. Naturally I am led by our testimony to equality to value his friendship and we have become what I guess you’d call pen-pals.
I’m reminded of a something Albert Einstein once said: ‘Before God we are all equally wise - and equally foolish.’ How true that is, and how wrong it is to deny anyone the opportunity to put past mistakes behind them and start afresh. Yet I know from the experience of others I’ve helped, that the biggest fear that haunts sex offenders on their release is the fear of exposure, prejudice and victimisation. The internet makes it all too easy for anyone to learn of Richard’s past, which will make it all the harder for him to rebuild his life.
We will never prevent newspapers from writing lurid headlines, nor will legislation ever be passed that sees news stories disappear from the internet after a few years. Search engines can, if quizzed in the right way, reveal more than most of us would wish to be known about our past lives. This can be annoying and occasionally embarrassing, but for someone who has been to prison for an offence he now deeply regrets, it can damage their chances of leading a useful life.
Everybody deserves a second chance; what more can we do to make that possible?
Robert Ashton is an author, social entrepreneur and Quaker.
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