Posts Tagged ‘chaplains’

When I began to teach in prison, I expected the chaplains to be a tough sort, standing up for the inmates. In my opinion, this kind of moral stance was in the best tradition of the Catholic religion. And the men and women I admired most in the Protestant and Jewish faiths were of the same persuasion.

I expected prison chaplains to follow the quote of the prophet Isaiah. This is what Isaiah expected the messiah to be:

I have appointed you

to open the eyes of the blind,

to free captives from prison

and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.  (Chapter 42, 6)

In no time, I was pretty disappointed.

An inmate told me about the previous Sunday’s sermon. “The Bible teaches us to obey those in charge of us and to treat them with reverence. Don’t question them, do what they tell you.”

With my education in the Catholic seminary and five years as a Catholic priest, I could hold my own in a discussion of the Bible and what it meant to be a Christian. But the opportunity never came up. Most of the chaplains I met, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other, were of the sort that identified with the obedience quote above. That’s what they preached.

Nobody gave the inmates even a hint that something could be wrong with the system they were imprisoned in. I know prisoners felt things, that this was not ‘corrections,’ but punishment, that often guards and staff were unjust, and that what they experienced in their everyday lives could hardly be called ‘living religion.’

Until I met Jerry.

Jerry was the Catholic chaplain in a high medium prison of about three hundred inmates. He was not out on the barricades yelling at the administration, he was in his office counseling anybody who came to him. Even though the prison system paid his salary, he was not afraid to question their decisions. Like me, he’d been through a long seminary education, but he left just before ordination and soon married. I figured he would play along with the administration because he wanted to keep his job, but not Jerry. Every month one of the chaplains gave a talk to the guards. The usual arrangement was that chaplain would give a very short ‘sleeper sermon’ and let the guards go. Not Jerry. When he heard of a group of guards making fun of a mentally challenged inmate, he brought it up in his sermon.

If somebody asked him to stay a half hour or an hour after his time in the office, no problem. He would, even though he wasn’t paid for any time after his office hours.

One of the prisons couldn’t get a Catholic chaplain, so Jerry went on his own time one day a week to help them out.

In my opinion, Jerry fulfilled that quote of Isaiah.

Vic ToewsCan things get worse in our federal prison system? Of course they can – Vic Toews is in charge. He’s done two things recently to make things worse.

He laid off all part-time chaplains, thus eliminating all non-Christian chaplains from the prison system. The full-time chaplains represent Catholic and Protestant denominations. What about rabbis? What about the spiritual leaders of first nations people? What about the Wicca religion?

Toews claims that volunteers can do that.

I hope someone takes him to court over this. Does it make any sense to eliminate men and women inmates prison chaplainconfide in? The prison system needs MORE chaplains, not fewer and in some cases, BETTER chaplains. My experience of chaplains is limited, but I’ve only met one man who knew what he was doing.

The other thing he’s done is stop federal inmates from ordering in food for special special mealoccasions. Currently there are strict limits on how much money they can spend on food orders and these activities have to be linked to increasing pro-social activity.  This means that they need to eat in a communal setting to increase positive social interaction.  It is meant to reduce isolation and break down “toughness” barriers that might exist.

My good friend Joanne, a frequent commentator on this blog, wrote to Mr. Toews about this issue:

Mr. Toews,

 I am writing in response to stories in today’s news regarding the ability of federal inmates to order in food for specific special occasions.  I believe  there  are better ways to score political points than to announce that you wish to take away even very minor rays of hope for prisoners, such as being able to order out for food with their own money once in a blue moon.

Let me explain my position, based on knowledge I have gained over the years through extensive education and experience.  First, punishment does not work over the long term—for anyone.  Period.  Second, when you tell someone that they are a “scumbag”, “dirt”, “worthless”, all you are doing is telling them that you expect them to go on behaving in ways inconsistent with societal standards.  By treating people like animals, you are sending the same message.  “You don’t deserve to be part of society, we don’t want you back, and we expect you to fail.”  These messages, not surprisingly, often lead to failure.  Some people see them as permission to give up and lead a marginal lifestyle.  They begin to believe they can do no better.  Alternatively, the messages spark anger and a thirst for retribution, in others.  Either way, society loses.

What we need, instead, is to send offenders an invitation to rejoin society as whole, contributing human beings.  We need to send the message, “You are one of us and we want you back but when you do come back, we have a number of expectations that you need to follow, as we all do.  What is more, we know you are capable of following them”.  People serving time need opportunities to prove to themselves, and to others, that they are indeed capable of the behavioural expectations that society lays out for us all.  This is truly what personal responsibility is about.  We all need to be responsible for our own behaviour.

Currently, our criminal justice system takes away personal responsibility instead of stressing its importance.  If we gave it back, we would also be making things better for the victims of crime.  They are largely ignored in the current way we deal with offenders.  Some ways that offenders can demonstrate personal responsibility is by being given opportunities for restitution.  They will not be able to bring anyone back to life, but they can do things that will make life better for many people who are experiencing difficulties in their lives.  They can become examples for all others of how to live harmoniously in society.

Some ideas of how offenders can give back include allowing volunteer work that can be performed within prisons (e.g., making things that can be used by others in need), fundraising drives in which offenders solicit each other, staff members, family, etc. in exchange for something they do (e.g., run, sports tournament, matching donations, etc.), having special community groups attend to learn special skills (e.g., art, trades) from offenders, or providing entertainment for community members.  Such programs allow offenders to feel useful and worthwhile and teach them that they can continue to contribute to society in meaningful ways upon release.  Offenders need to learn the intrinsic value of giving to others.  Stop treating them as invalids, who can do no right and allow them the opportunity to show all of us what they are capable of.  We may all benefit hugely both over the short and long term.

Consider this an opportunity to look beyond your current views and see other possibilities you may have missed.  Consider this an opportunity to take personal responsibility to search for policies that will actually create positive change, rather than perpetuate the status quo.  At the same time you would silence the voices of many detractors who say that the Conservative Party agenda is to create and maintain employment opportunities on the backs of offenders.

I thank-you for taking the time to read this.


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