Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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.

People look back on history and shake their heads in revulsion. How could one man, Hitler, have ordered the holocaustextermination of the Jewish people? Why did most of his country go along with such a madman? How did it happen that people captured human beings in Africa and sold them in North American marketplaces? How could they tear a mother from her children, a woman from her husband?

How could people do these things?

Yet the time will come when our descendants will abhor what we have done. “You did what with people who broke your laws?  You put them in cages and left them there for years?”

It is my belief that a Christian cannot support the idea of prison. It’s evil, it’s a sin. If one sits down and reads any chapter of the New Testament, then closes the book, that person cannot say that prisons are a good idea.

Muslims respect the dignity of people as does every religion I’ve ever heard about. First Nation’s people have given us restorative justicethe principles of restorative justice, which respect both victim and offender. Beyond the religious perspective, any true humanitarian must denounce the concept of imprisonment.

What can a person of conscience do about prison?

  • Get involved with your local prison or jail. It won’t be easy. The Correctional Service of Canada says on one hand that it wants volunteers, but on the other hand it makes it very hard to do so.
  • Insist that the proper Christian message reach prison. A lot of prison religion is namby-pamby, about acceptance of one’s circumstances, rather than liberation.
  • Help a person who’s just getting out of jail. The system spits a person out without providing the help they need. Cynics say the prison really wants the person back, because that means more jobs. Help him or her get a job and stay off drugs. Provide them with new friends, instead of the old crowd who will drag them back into crime.
  • Visit someone in prison. Send them a Christmas basket. You would be surprised how many men and women have no visitors, no one to care about them. (see Matthew 25:36)
  • A creative parish in New York State has opened its own halfway house, a model for any church.
  • Watch legislation. Write letters. Drug addiction is more a medical problem than it is a criminal problem. Don’t let the media circus legislate for our country.

Images courtesy of: