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Pope answers policies that suffocate hope

  • 30 September 2019


To an outsider it is interesting, and to advertisers and media proprietors a matter of life and death, to note which of the millions of words that are spoken each day attract notice, and to reflect on why they are noticed.

Recently, for example, many news outlets reported on what had become a fairly routine visit and speech by Pope Francis to the prison officers, visitors and prisoners at a Roman prison. Francis spoke with his customary sharpness of phrase about life prison sentences without parole. The passage is worth quoting at length:

'Take courage, never suffocate the flame of hope ... To revive this flame is the duty of all. It is up to every society to feed it, to ensure that punishment does not compromise the right to hope, that prospects of reconciliation and reintegration are guaranteed. While remedying the mistakes of the past, we cannot erase hope in the future. Life imprisonment is not the solution to problems, but a problem to be solved. Because if hope is locked up, there is no future for society. Never deprive anyone of the right to start over!'

Perhaps this speech was considered newsworthy because in Australia sentences to a lifetime in prison without parole are becoming less contentious and more used. The passage also bears reflection because the Pope's approach to prisoners and their criminal behaviour is in such strong contrast to strands of Australian culture in which exclusion and the denial of hope are an instinctive response to perceived misbehaviour.

This is evident in increased anxiety about crime despite a falling crime rate, the increasing expressions of anger at punishments considered inadequate, in the increased use of incarceration as a response to crime, as well as in the denial of parole as a rule rather than an exception. It is also evident in the popularity of an asylum seeker policy in which indefinite detention, the denial of permanent residence and exclusion from other services that other Australians take for granted are central planks. The policy rests on denying hope to people under Australian control in order to deny hope to others who might seek protection here.

The same absolutism in condemning people who misbehave and defining them forever by their misdemeanours is also evident in popular culture. People who are accused of behaving badly at any time in their lives are held up for condemnation, massively so in social media. There is protest