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Re-imagining imprisonment

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Held in Trinity College, Dublin in early September, a 2-day Scribani conference on re-imagining prison systems in Europe was especially memorable not just for the intriguing name, but for the people it attracted: the 200-plus participants included an unusually large number of Irish Jesuits, and of younger volunteers, who brought an agreable vitality to the gathering.

The Scribani network of fourteen Jesuit-linked institutions in Europe was launched in 2003/2004 and named after a Jesuit, Scribani, one of the founders of the Jesuit University in Antwerp. About every two years Scribani organizes conferences on major social issues. The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, a Dublin-based centre that engages in social analysis, theological reflection and advocacy, co-ordinated the conference at local level, and showed impressive skills in bringing together representatives from across Europe. Welcoming the participants were John Dardis, SJ, President of the Conference of European Provincials, and Mark Rotsaert, SJ, Rector of the Jesuit Community, Gregorian University, Rome.

The vision? That this space for discussion and collaboration might trigger a re-imagining of how prison systems might evolve, in terms of prison policy, prison population size and prison conditions. Lawyers, social researchers, prison staff, and prison visitors from all over Europe brought a wide range of experience of prison.

Dublin’s warm sunny weather helped the social side of the conference. So did a reception in the National Gallery, where Noel Barber SJ gave a marvellous talk on Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, and the story of how it had been “discovered” in the Jesuit house on Leeson Street about fifteen years ago.

The speakers at the Plenary Sessions included Jean Corston, Member of the British House of Lords, Peter McVerry, SJ, of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice (Dublin), Tom O’Malley, Senior Lecturer in Law at NUI Galway; and our former President Mary Robinson, former United National High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a video message.

The range of experiences and the quality of the papers reached a high standard. The effects? A new sense of what is needed to change our attitudes towards imprisonment: a passionate questioning of human institutions, research skills for  comparing different cultural settings, and an appreciation of how best to work in a multi-disciplinary way. The contentious issues at stake touch on justice, on whether human lives can be changed for the better, and how the firmly rooted inequalities in our societies leave deep scars on prisoners.