Article of the week: On the inside: cell and soul

6 June 2020


Major Paul Johnson reflects on isolation, interconnectedness and the possibility of transformation

THE coronavirus has shaken the world and no element of society has been immune from its impact and intrusion. We have been forced to live in a new world with a new norm. Social distancing is the least that we have been asked to practise in our behaviours, and for some that means solitary confinement. This has not been easy because we were created by God to be social beings.

It’s all there in Genesis. We werecreated to have an active daily relationship with God, to be in fellowship – God with us and we with him. God also knew we would need fellowship at our own level: ‘The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him”’ (Genesis 2:18).

Solitary confinement is used as a punishment in a prison setting – although it can be used for a prisoner’s personal safety. The film The Great
stars Steve McQueen as Captain Virgil Hilts, one of three Americans in a prisoner-of-war camp. Because of his frequent escape attempts and irreverent attitude, Hilts spends regular spells of isolation in the cooler – a solitary confinement cell – so is known as the ‘Cooler King’. His
habit of bouncing a baseball against the cell wall keeps him entertained as he plans his next escape attempt. The film ends with an iconic scene where Hilts makes a break for it, leaping over barbed-wire fences on a motorbike, but is eventually captured. The final shot shows him being returned to the cooler and bouncing his baseball against the wall – to the irritation of the prison guards.

The pursuit of freedom and fellowship is an underlying desire of every man and woman, underpinning life itself. ‘No man is an island’ is a
phrase from Meditation XVII by the priest and poet John Donne, written in 1624 when he was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. The prose passage, which was published in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, speaks of the essence of being human: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

John Donne lived in Tudor England at a time when church bells were rung to mark various events and were an important feature of daily life.
In this passage, the bell signifies a death, but the main point Donne makes is that all of us are socially and spiritually interconnected. In other words, we exist in and for fellowship, not isolation. This is how God has ordained it for us, and the need for it is reflected in the prison regime, where ‘association’ is the highlight of a prisoner’s day. It is the time they can meet, talk, watch TV together, play cards or have a game of pool. It’s important to the mental and spiritual health of those who reside in what is known as ‘the prison estate’.

The Penitentiary Act of 1779 proposed two state penitentiaries, one for men and one for women. It introduced solitary confinement to give a prisoner time to think, receive religious instruction and engage in a purposeful labour regime. The idea was to help those being entertained at His or Her Majesty’s pleasure time to reform their character from the inside, cell and soul, spiritually and morally. This remains at the heart of all prison reform today, and prison chaplains – including Salvation Army chaplains – have an integral and influential role in this mission. A prison’s chaplaincy team is central to all its activities, and promotes the true meaning of fellowship: bringing men and women into a living relationship with the God who loves them in spite of their sin, faults and failings, and who can change them inside and out.


I believe in transformation,

God can change the hearts of men,

And refine the evil nature

Till it glows with grace again.

Others may reject the weakling,

I believe he can be strong,To the family of Jesus

All God’s children may belong.

(SASB 34)




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