Prisons and the Body of Christ
Justice and grace.
December 17, 2009
I bailed my mom out of jail once. She made her one phone call not to a lawyer or adult friend, but to her son. "Come get me, I'm in the lockup in Raleigh," she said. I asked a friend old enough to drive to take me out there. I couldn't have been older than fourteen.
The cop behind the desk tried to comfort me. The white kid from the suburbs didn't represent his normal constituency, I'm guessing. "Assault can mean a lot of things." He took out his comb and touched my arm with it. "There, I just assaulted you, technically," he said.
I didn't feel better. She'd had a fight with her boyfriend. He accused her of assaulting him. She probably had. Off her meds, a bipolar person could do something crazy or violent without flinching. It wasn't the first or last time she'd spend behind bars.
I think my history with my now-deceased mom helps explain my sympathy with our nation's two and a half million prisoners. Occasionally my mom was among them. She was, as you can tell, a troubled person. I hated being identified with her as a kid. But she was the only mom I had.
All the people behind bars are somebody's mom, dad, son, daughter, friend. I can't forget that. But as Christians, we have an even more compelling reason not to keep our vast prison population out of sight and out of mind. Jesus gave us surprisingly few direct commands, if you count them up. One of them—given in the form of a parable about the judgment, but nevertheless uncomfortably clear—was to visit those in prison. Other parts of the New Testament command us to pray for those in prison. I dare say few of our churches practice this. Careful if you start.
Ken Lamberton, author of Time of Grace: Thoughts on Nature, Family, and the Politics of Crime and Punishment, was a sex offender. Check that, he is a sex offender: he must register with police and notify the media and neighbors anytime he changes addresses for the rest of his life. He ran away from his wife and three daughters with a 14-year-old student of his, was caught with her two weeks later, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Inmates treat sex offenders about as well as the media: when he was sent to a higher security prison, he was jumped and beat up by members of the Aryan Nation. Anticipating this, he had asked the warden for protection. He was refused.
Lamberton was only in the higher security prison in the first place because the department of corrections made a clerical error and classified him as a repeat offender. He thinks this was a careless mistake. His lawyer-wife thinks it was done to punish him for winning an early parole. That parole was revoked when a corrupt da broke his word and an appellate court upheld Lamberton's original conviction, sending him back to prison for four years after a year and a half at home. In a sort of operatic comedy of horrors, this repentant man was yanked from his family and left unprotected with serial murderers and rapists who stopped just short of murdering him. Because of a clerical error, never apologized for or even acknowledged.
How did he survive? With a wife as tough as creosote. Karen underlined passages in Hosea to tell him, in no uncertain terms, why she was staying. In life before prison, when she bore their children it was with no drugs, no stirrups, nothing: "She allowed me to come along so I would make certain the doctors followed her requests." When he went to jail, she went to law school and worked for his release and return to her family. Once, while visiting him in prison, he told her she looked nice. "It wouldn't be very smart of you to charge me up and then send me away into a world of free males.' She isn't kidding."
His other secret to survival was a scribe's eye, exact and loving. The ravens perched above the prison have "the patience of the dead." The sky in prison one night is "Huge, clear, so clear it's as if all the dust has gone looking for bibles." Lamberton is a naturalist behind bars, fascinated with the way nature intrudes in such a place. Razor wire and cinderblocks simply cannot keep nature out. A mallard incubates eggs under some bushes on the yard. It's safer inside the fence for her and her brood than outside, where coyotes prowl. A ringtail, Arizona's beautiful and rarely seen state mammal, cautiously emerges from under a prison building one night. Lamberton hears the cicadas' call as a mere drone, but the "female cicada senses separate pulses of sound: the heartbeat of a lover." He scoops up a handful of tadpoles from a puddle after a rainstorm, houses them in a jar on his windowsill, and apologizes. "I can't do much about the space constraints (this is prison), but my salvaged charges don't have to worry about sprouting legs before their pond dries out. If the toads can do the math, we do have the time." One night during a fire alarm the men stand outside and find themselves treated to a shower of meteors: "Some leave brilliant blue green trails in their wake that hold for seconds and then fade. The men see them too; I hear their pleasure every time a particularly magnificent rock splashes into the atmosphere." Lamberton sees it all, and shows it to us so beautifully it's no wonder he's won the Burroughs Prize—one of the most distinguished awards for nature writing on the planet.
But listen to his description of some more of the beasts: "It's the sadistic officers, those polyps of inhumanity, who do the most damage, who darken your thinking." As a former pastor of prison guards, I find this sweeping judgment manifestly unfair. Why does Lamberton, he of the lyric prose, indulge in hatred? Well, there was the time a sergeant strip-searched his wife. All three of her daughters were present. One was left asking mommy why someone would hide something inside their body. Karen is tough, all right, but after this violation, she and her eldest needed therapy for a year. Who, again, is the sex offender?
Why indeed would anyone need to hide something that way? Drugs are omnipresent behind bars, and not because visitors bring them in. Guards bring them in. At inflated prices. It's an extraordinary fact that in the most secure places on earth the most prohibited substances can be found in abundance, ferried by guards who augment pitiful salaries through dealing. Several times in the book, Lamberton repeats the question famously posed by Tacitus: "Who guards the guards?"
The beauty of Lamberton's prose, the poignancy of a marriage fractured, frozen, then thawed, the horror of imprisonment he relates, will break your heart. But so will something else, and not in a good way. While he did time, Arizona elected a "tough on crime" governor. Fife Symington wasn't going to be lenient on white-collar criminals, either, he declared. The only problem: he was a crook himself, bilking millions from his job in the private sector before running for office. He was convicted—so was justice done in the end? No. Symington managed to delay his sentence while he vacationed with his family in Honduras, before getting it suspended altogether.
Meanwhile Lamberton's fellow inmate Manny will get no help with drug rehabilitation while behind bars. The programs have all been cut. There are no weights to lift, no musical instruments to be played, no books in the libraries. He can receive no Christmas packages. The Christmas trees a volunteer group left for prisoners were stolen by the guards. He'll get no education—non-citizens cannot be taught in prison. There used to be the chance to take community college courses or even get a four-year degree, but no more. He'll just waste away before being released, if he lives that long. Both Manny and Symington are convicted thieves, but "Manny's thievery pales in comparison" to his honor's. That's "tough on crime."
Did I mention that all this is absurdly expensive? The biggest line item in Arizona's state budget is corrections. For what it costs annually to house an inmate, it would be cheaper to pay tuition at a private university. But at a time when money is scarce for schools, job creation, culture, and everything else, the legislature always finds money for prisons. And when new prisons go up, warrants go out at a greater rate—can't have empty beds. "Prisons have become the ore and livestock and crops," a genuinely reliable growth industry. No wonder private prisons are the new craze nationwide. Not that the state department of corrections couldn't find $200 per inmate to replace all prison blues with orange jumpsuits. The blues looked too human.
Why the gracious, gentle title to Lamberton's book? Karen's simplistic faith was destroyed by her husband's prison experience, but not quickly. It survived his infidelity and his initial eight years in, driving her to study law and win his release. But his re-imprisonment broke it. Now she can't stand comforting Christian clichés. She no longer abides by a Deuteronomistic faith that says the good are rewarded and the evil punished in this life. She's learned, with her husband, a new faith: battled-hardened and caustically funny. She sends him a card proclaiming that 90 percent of people get laid on Valentine's Day. Inside: the other 10 percent get a card. Lamberton speaks of the psalms as one-a-day vitamins. They keep you alive. You hurt like hell, but you pray anyway. And nature's God speaks to him more clearly than to his wife—or maybe he has more time to listen. "Beautiful animal," he says when he sees a great horned owl on the hunt. "Restores my faith in things wild, supernatural."
In Crossing the Yard, Richard Shelton writes about prison from the perspective of a volunteer teacher of creative writing over a period of thirty years. (Ken Lamberton was one of his students.) Shelton, a prizewinning poet and professor at the University of Arizona, says that much of what he knows about teaching was learned behind bars. When asked why he goes into the prisons, he replies that he's selfish. The men teach him too much to stop. When asked if he's not ever in danger there he replies affirmatively—from the guards, one of whom passed him a basket full of drugs by mistake once, while others have harassed, menaced, and generally thumped their chests around him, while trying to exterminate his massively successful writing program. The prisoners have protected him.
Shelton's initial motive for volunteering, he recalls, was hardly noble. An infamous kidnapper and serial murderer, Charles Schmid, wanted to send him poetry. Shelton the writer sniffed promising material. He wanted to be a "voyeur," looking in on a "monster." But as Schmid learned about metaphor and went to war on sentimentality, harnessing the rage inside him, he began to change. He wrote to Shelton, "Something's happened to me. Something wonderful and frightening. I can't explain it. But I feel like somebody else." Shelton concurred. "My God," he thought. "He even looks different."
Shelton has witnessed many such transformations. One writer won a National Endowment for the Arts grant—for which his entry was judged blind. Another, Lamberton, won that Burroughs Prize. Another took a PhD in history and became a college professor. Another designed a system to store solar energy while still in prison. Another became a preacher. Another, Calvin, grew so adept at speaking on the prisons' "scared straight" circuit that he won his pardon and opened a rehab program.
You don't have to be a cynic to recall the counter-examples over the years, of prison writers championed by celebrated outsiders (as Norman Mailer, for example, took up the cause of Jack Henry Abbott), with a bleak end to the story. But the point isn't to add up literary honors or highlight the most dramatic instances of change, set against the most publicized failures. Rather, Shelton's account of his writing classes should remind us of the humanity of the prisoners, whether talented or not. When a student would publish a poem or chapbook, the entire class would share in that success. Charles Schmid wrote his teacher on his first publication, "I have a kind of dignity." Even more impressive, in a place that is strictly racially policed by gangs such that races do not mix in the chow hall, writing class turns inmates into friends. Perhaps it is the quasi-liturgical effect of being left breathless together by the beauty of words. Or of sharing unspeakable pain in words that point beyond words: in poetry. Or perhaps it is the bootcamp-like atmosphere of Shelton's workshop—he pushes them hard. "I suppose it is caused by the fact that you can't discuss and criticize someone's most cherished ideas and creations without coming to feel some empathy with that person …. Actually I don't know what causes it, but I know it happens and it violates the established norm of any prison." It's a bit like church is supposed to be, isn't it?
Yes, all too often, inspiring success can be followed hard by devastating failure. Would-be successes re-offend upon release. The rate of recidivism for sexual predators is particularly discouraging (and this is equally true of those who are routed into the mental health system rather than to prison). Statistically speaking, Ken Lamberton is a very bad risk.
Some reformed prisoners aren't even given a chance to fail on the outside. Charles Schmid was jumped and stabbed repeatedly by fellow inmates. After struggling in intensive care for a week, he died. Shelton blamed himself—perhaps his literary conversion left Charles (who'd changed his name to Paul) soft, inattentive, vulnerable. Another student, a Latino, refused an order from the Mexican mafia to leave the integrated class. He was also murdered. Another died due to neglect. The prison's medical officer neglected to treat his hepatitis C, and instead tied him to his bunk. The talented young poet died in agony, with plentiful men behind bars as helpless witnesses. "Each death is less shocking," Shelton writes. And after death? Prisoners were buried in a trash-filled, unmown yard with only their prison number over their heads.
Of course, victims of crime, or their surviving relatives, will reply that criminals have taken away their or their loved ones' identity. And they would most certainly be right. One cannot talk about the barbarity of our prisons without talking also of the barbarities many prisoners committed to get in. Shelton reflects on the fact that Charles Schmid had become like a son to him. Then he has a start as he remembers that other parents lost their children at Schmid's hands.
And Shelton assigns blame for violence in the prison more evenly than does Lamberton, seeing inmates' culpability as well as the guards'. One comes away from his book with a greater sense of the depravity of those in prison than Lamberton's account provides. Not that the two books don't agree on much. Both argue that cynical prison administrators stir racial animosity, even hoping for occasional riots, so they can appeal to state legislatures for more weaponry and funding. Both compare our prison system to slavery—a massive, profitable system that depends on the conveyor belt of bodies into its maw. Both see subversion as the way to survive and writing as the way to thrive. Shelton pontificates more loudly. Lamberton prefers to show the quotidian.
Shelton spares no quarter for those who defend what T.S. Eliot called "Death's other kingdom." Prison holds up a mirror to our society, and what it shows is ugly. We are a violent and fearful people, on our way "toward the point where half of our society will be spending most of its money to keep the other half in prison." Shelton marvels at the claim of one prisoner that life inside isn't so bad: "For the first time in my life I have a bed to sleep in and three meals a day and we all sit down to eat together." Prison has become a surrogate family for millions of people—a place with greater community than back home. (Would it be more punishment to release them, then?) Reflecting on Karen Lamberton's heroic effort to stay with Ken, Shelton writes, "Incarceration is probably the quickest and most effective way to destroy a family permanently. And mass incarceration, as it is practiced in this country, is the quickest and most effective way to destroy the social fabric of entire communities, especially poor and minority communities."
What is Shelton's proposed solution? Dogged, committed volunteerism. Millions of volunteers could make prison more transparent, ease the transition from jail to free life, and leave, he thinks, "only a fraction of the present number of inmates incarcerated." The more people who know the inanity of our current system, the more will see the wisdom of counter-proposals—like electronic monitoring. Shelton's own work has born enormous fruit. We can only hope others will follow.
Maybe we should do what Jesus said, and visit those in prison.
Christians, especially evangelicals, have taken up this call in the past. When William Wilberforce won his crusade against the slave trade he moved on to prison reform as the natural next step. Chuck Colson and other evangelicals have drawn public attention to the barbarity of our prisons and made clear, through their own political conservatism, that what they are proposing is no bleeding-heart liberalism. They ask us simply to open our eyes and look at what we're doing to our prisoners. It is, after all, our tax money paying for this monstrous system. By maintaining it, we are complicit in a grievous sin.
Another evangelical on the front line is Gerard Crispin, author of Beyond Bars and director of Day One Prison Ministries in the United Kingdom. (The United States may enjoy the dubious distinction of leading the world in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizens, but the problems of prisons are not uniquely American.) Crispin's theology can veer toward the simplistic, and now and then he slides into culture-war ranting. But his commitment to prisoners is beyond question, and we can learn from him.
In his seemingly artless style, no match for Lamberton's or Shelton's, Crispin plays a cheap literary trick that, I have to admit, fooled me nearly every time. He tells updated Bible stories, with the names changed. Manasseh becomes Manny, Joseph becomes Joey, Barabbas becomes Paterson (both "son of the father"), the Philippian jailer becomes Mr. Philips, and so on. His point is well-taken: many of the writers and story subjects in Scripture were themselves prisoners. "How can anyone say that Jesus is not compassionately interested in criminals coming to Him?" Crispin asks. As such, prison is a delightful place to preach. One preacher friend of Crispin's marvels that in prison, he reaches considerably more outsiders than he ever does elsewhere. (If only more of us, evangelical preachers and Christians of all stripes, saw prison as an opportunity.) Crispin himself sees preaching to nice, ordinary church folks as more difficult than preaching to prisoners. Churchgoers tend to think of themselves as good, innocent people. But we are all "needy, before a holy God who hates sin." In fact, reflecting on Jesus' words against hatred and lust, Crispin speaks of the unimprisoned as "pre-cons"! We have no high moral ground on which to stand.
So Crispin often takes the low ground—humor—which seems to be a crucial survival strategy for anyone behind bars. Speaking with his wife to a prison congregation once, he mentioned they'd been married 58 years. "That's two life sentences, in' it, eh?" a man shouted, to uproarious laughter. Once during a lockdown Crispin noticed he had worn his blue striped shirt. It was not unlike the inmates' attire. When he pleaded with the guard that he was the group's speaker, he was rebuked: "That's what they all say." Once he forgot his Bible (a common occurrence—"My Bible has spent more time in custody than Al Capone finally did"), and a fellow chaplain radioed the guards in evangelicalese: "Mr. Crispin has left his sword in the chapel." One can imagine the security panic that ensued. When a prisoner protested his innocence on the charge he was facing, Crispin prayed that God would bring justice. The man objected strenuously: "Look mate, I did not do this one—they've got the wrong geezer for sure. But I've done lots more they never nicked me for. If justice were done I'd never get out of this place!"
Crispin isn't interested in talk of abolishing prisons. In fact, he's seen their salutary effect—recalling Samuel Johnson's comment that the death penalty wonderfully concentrates the mind. Prisoners attend to Jesus who never would outside. Not that Crispin is overly optimistic: "We have not seen many converts yet." And unlike all too many evangelical activists, he does not pad statistics—it's simply too hard to presume how prisoners' transition back to society will go. Still, he is eager for converts. The UK turns over some 400,000 prisoners a year: "Think what the knock-on effect of a prisoner's genuine conversion can be on his, or her, family and friends."
Yet even as he goes about his work, Crispin insists with Lamberton and Shelton that our current prison system is counter-productive to crime-fighting and society's health as a whole. "If you gather together in one place all the individuals whom society has incarcerated to remove them from the public—whether you see that as penal or as reforming—the fact is that putting all the 'bad eggs' together cannot make an omelette which is safe or nice to eat!" Crispin got involved in prison ministry when, as a lawyer, he heard a judge refer to a convict as a "waste of space." Surely no human being can be so named. Prisoners are more like you and me than any of us think. Often "they are 'ordinary' people who reacted wrongly (and sinfully) in unusual circumstances at a particular time." There but for the grace of God ….
Maybe we should do what Jesus said, and visit those in prison. When I first did, I was struck how ordinary prisoners are. I don't know if I'd been habituated into expecting them all to be snarling monsters bent on my destruction. But they seemed like guys I might play basketball with, or go to church or school with, or share a bus or sidewalk with (not likely a neighborhood—people in my social class rarely wind up in prison). On a later prison visit I met with my friend Jens Soering, a convict who writes that, if every Christian congregation would adopt two former inmates a year, we could greatly reduce recidivism. And if we flooded prisons with visits of the sort the Bible commands, the abuse to which many prisoners are subject would largely dry up.
While Jens and I talked, I kept looking at the other prisoners, trying not so obviously to stare. Some of them were visiting with parents, children, friends. This is surely not how they planned their lives. Prison incarcerates a whole family, for generations even. What's in store for the eight-year-old boy over there playing Connect 4 with his briefly happy father and his depressed-looking, long-suffering mother? Or the man weeping as his girlfriend holds his hand? Or the mother whose whole body announces her aches as she tries to get her son to read the Gideon Bible with her? These are human beings. Kin. Beloved of God, in need of grace, some already partaking of it. That's what the church needs to see.
Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School (faithandleadership.com).
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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