The first time I was in a prison, I was twelve. The Episcopal chaplain at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia asked me to be his altar boy at the prison. Moyamensing was built in 1835 and continued mistreating inmates until 1963. Seventy-seven years later, I can still hear those big metal doors scrapping open and close. The experience was an eyeopener but left a livelong impression, mostly negative, about injustice.
Over the years, I have visited many prisons, jails, and youth detention facilities as a pastor. All are living monuments to our failed judicial system. Dehumanizing people is not what civilized countries should do to anyone, and Followers of the Way should not turn their backs on this cruelty either.
For seven years, my wife and I tutored inmates in our local jails and prisons. Our students were good people who had done a bad or dumb thing. We also met some deputy sheriffs who were rotten apples. The senior deputy in charge of all the jails told us repeatedly that everyone there was bad. We disagreed and told him so. In spite of him, we found this experience most fulfilling.
If I could do life over, I would like to work in the penal system converting prisons into centers of rehabilitation, helping people turning their Good (Bad) Fridays into Easters.
Whenever I read Matthew 25:36 and Jesus says, “I was in prison and you came to visit me,” and in verse 45 when he says, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me,” I want to change the system that dehumanizes prisoners by sending them back into society totally unprepared and then wonder why so many return to repeat the cycle.
About a year ago online, I found the group Christians for Abolishing Prisons and made contact. The executive director shared the group’s approach: promote rehabilitation for the incarcerated but also rehab for the thinking of those who advocate harsh punishment. She knew it was going to be a long process, but then she reminded me that so was the process to abolish slavery led by faith-based communities.
I realize the word abolish is strong, especially when talking about bad people. Most folks immediately say, “No way! There are too many bad guys out there.”
Our approach is not to abolish but to change the direction from dehumanization to rehabilitation. Our present system is broken. We have to try something different, more in line with respecting the worth of every human being.
For example, we advocate that from the moment people enter the system they would be treated with dignity. Then the system would offer the inmates tools to conquer addiction, treat their mental health, upgrade their education, teach them twenty-first-century skills so they are ready to enter the job market upon release, make it easy for their families to visit and support them, and base their stay on a merit system. This system of rehabilitation is not new. In some developed countries, this approach has had excellent success.
Let me know if you have any ideas to share about restructuring our present unjust, inhuman “justice” system.
Peace Love Joy Hope
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash