Posts tagged with: prison

Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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Texas Easter Prison Visit_6“If Christians cannot help prisoners find meaning behind bars,” wonders Stephen H. Webb, “how can they expect the Gospel to find an audience among those never convicted of a crime?” At First Things, Webb argues that revival of Christianity will only come when we reform America’s prisons:

Prisoners are test cases of how Christians deal with sinners in extremis. I don’t just mean that compassion for the imprisoned can serve as a corroboration of Christian charity, although that is surely true. I mean that the whole experience of imprisonment is absolutely central to the coherence and credibility of the Gospel message. How can captivity, a great biblical theme, have any meaning today if we treat incarceration as nothing more than “serving time”? How can salvation be proclaimed as the ultimate joy even in this life if we live in a society that continues punishing prisoners long after they have been released?

One of the strongest parallels between prisons and theology has to do with our conceptions of the afterlife. For example, many people treat the possibility of rehabilitation behind prison walls with the same skeptical indifference that even devout Catholics now bestow upon purgatory: We can’t even fathom how moral change happens, if at all, in either place, so we leave its remote possibility up to God. Cynicism at home breeds disbelief abroad. Nobody believes that isolation and humiliation reform criminals, just as nobody really believes that a cleansing fire burns away unconfessed sins in purgatory, yet without any plausible alternatives to humiliation or fire, the healing effect of punishment remains as mysterious for the Church as it does for the judicial system.

Read more . . .

Last week on the Acton PowerBlog, Anthony Bradley raised the issue of the war on men, specifically the high rate of imprisonment among men in the United States.  At one point in time, America acknowledged that prison might be a place of rehabilitation rather than simply the warehousing of criminals (read Ray Nothstine’s work on Angola Prison to see that rehabilitation in prison is possible.)

Catholic blogger Mark Shea interprets the high rate of imprisonment as a sign of the de-Christianization of our culture: we’ve de-valued life, and slavery becomes acceptable. The infographic below shows that prison – no longer rehabilitative and no longer warehousing – is profitable. Prisoners are cheap labor and big business. Rather than tending to criminals, visiting the imprisoned and helping men and women who’ve committed crimes become better people, we’re using them. It might be a money-maker, but is it just?

Prison, Inc - The Secret Industry

As Joe noted last week, over at Think Christian, H. David Schuringa highlights the primacy of the church’s ministry to prisoners and their families. He points to efforts both great and small:

Over the last 20 years, prison ministry has finally gotten back on the church’s agenda. There are not only large, national ministries like Bill Glass Champions for Life, Kairos, Prison Fellowship and Crossroad Bible Institute, all dedicated to preparing inmates for reentry, but also thousands of smaller groups and churches going into prisons and jails to bring the Good News.

Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, was a long-time friend of the Acton Institute, and his story is featured in a compelling way in our new curriculum, Our Great Exchange.

Jim Liske, the current CEO of Prison Fellowship, hosts the series, which includes a session on “Compassion,” featuring Chuck’s story from political insider to prison insider…and beyond. As Chuck says, “I did everything my way. And it crashed and burned.”

For a preview of the session on compassion, check out the video featuring Chuck, “Like I Am.”

America has a lot big problems—and we American’s like them to have one big cause. We also prefer that they have one big solution (preferably fixable by our big government). Take, for example, violent crime. Since 1992, the population increased from 255 million to 310 million but the violent crime rate fell from 757.7 per to 386.3 per 100,000 people. While in 1994 more than half of Americans considered crime to be the nation’s most important problem, only 2 percent believed that in 2012.

prison-ministryNo one knows exactly why the crime rate dropped so precipitously, though numerous experts have their pet theories. Penologists credit increases in incarceration while police say it’s community policing. Others say it’s due to increases in abortion or reductions in lead in gasoline. All of these factors may have played a role, but one consideration that is often overlooked is the role of religion.

For instance, as H. David Schuringa points out,

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Angola inmates in the prison auto shop. (Photo by Erin Oswalt for Acton Institute)

In mid-September I ventured down to South Louisiana to visit and tour the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as Angola Prison. My commentary this week “Angola Prison, Moral Rehabilitation, and the Things Ahead” is based on that visit. Burl Cain, Angola’s warden, will be featured in an upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty. I will be providing more information on Angola and my time down there, but think of this commentary as an introduction of sorts to what I witnessed.

A portion of the upcoming interview with Cain will reflect upon Chuck Colson. That good things are happening at places like Angola are in a large part directly related to Colson and his legacy and work on behalf of Prison Fellowship. I’ll have a lot more to say about Angola, but when you study in-depth the history and mystique of this prison, for it to change like it has, you know God is present.

Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.

Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”

This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.

But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.

The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.

Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.

No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.

The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.

Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.

This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:

Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.

(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).

My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.

Last week Rick Warren’s church hosted the fourth Saddleback Civil Forum. This time the forum focused on reconciliation, particularly on the roles of the church and the government in promoting and fostering reconciliation after crime and conflict.

The forum included special guests Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Miroslav Volf, a prominent theologian and native of Croatia.

One of the things that typically happens in the course of tyranny and genocide is that the church’s social witness is either sidelined and marginalized or simply subsumed under governmental control. President Kagame said that during the Rwandan genocide, the government and the church “were almost one and the same.” This severely hampered the church’s ability to act as a critical and mediating institution between the government and its individual citizens.

We featured the book, As We Forgive, on a past series of posts here on the PowerBlog when we asked, “What social conditions promote reconciliation?” This book is a powerful exploration of concrete cases of restorative justice at work in Rwanda after the genocide.

In a guest post on the PowerBlog, author Catherine Claire Larson described the essential role that economic institutions play in reconciliation. In describing ministries that work to promote micro-finance, Larson writes that “by creating economic opportunities where interdependence is vital, they are really creating ideal environments for reconciliation and restoration.”

The inspiration for Larson’s book, a documentary film of the same name, premiered on PBS earlier this year.

I also explored different Christian views of the government’s role in promoting restorative justice in a law review essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF).

That the government has some positive role to play in promoting restorative justice rings true in a number of concrete cases. Of course the state must respect the vital role that other institutions, like the church, must play. But sometimes punishment can be a means toward restoration.

Chef Jeff, a prominent personality on the Food Network, was in Grand Rapids earlier this year to discuss how his time in prison gave him the opportunity to reflect on his life and make positive changes to promote social well-being.

“In prison, it was the first time in my life I ever read a book. The first time in my life that someone told me that I was smart. The first time someone told me I had potential,” he said.

As Chef Jeff puts it, “Prison saved my life.”

The sixth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The sixth leg of the journey took the bikers from Fremont to Madison, a total distance of 548 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional for this week does a good job reminding us of the appropriate relative value of temporal vs. eternal things. “A human being’s life consists not in the abundance of his or her possessions, but in the blessing of loving relationships. May we be shrewd stewards of all the rest and not forget those around us who live in meager circumstances,” concludes the day 37 devotion.

The daily prayers for the road often take a look at local organizations doing work in the areas that the tour passes through. On day 37, for instance, the prayer notes the work of Justice For All (JFA), “a movement to defend and advance disability rights and advocate for the self-sufficiency and empowerment of adults and children with disabilities.” The day 41 prayer remembers the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), which “serves homeless families in collaboration with local faith communities and organizations.”

The sixth week of the tour travels through the state of Iowa, and you can check out the Samaritan Guide for programs integrating faith and work effectively in this state, including the Rural Senior Citizen and Prison Inmate Volunteers of Hope Haven, based in Rock Valley, Iowa. These volunteers, made up of rural senior citizens and prison inmates, volunteer their time and efforts “to refurbish used wheelchairs and to manufacture our own pediatric wheelchairs to deliver to the disabled poor living around the world.”

Iowa is also the home of one of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a program related to the work of Prison Fellowship Ministries that was challenged on constitutional grounds in 2006. While much of the ruling against IFI was overturned on appeal, the state’s contract with the group was terminated and ended in June of this year.

There’s a lot of consternation, much of it justified, about the news that now 1% of the population of the United States is incarcerated. Especially noteworthy is a comparison of the rate of imprisonment with institutionalization in mental health facilities over the last century.

But a breathless headline like this just cannot pass without some comment: “Michigan is 1 of 4 states to spend more on prison than college.”

Given the fact that policing, including imprisonment, is pretty clearly a legitimate function of the state (at least as broadly conceived in the Christian tradition, see Romans 13), while providing post-secondary education is not so obviously a responsibility for the government (n.b. I did go to a state school), maybe more states should spend more on prison than college…leaving college to private institutions.

Maybe this just means Michigan’s state government has its spending priorities more in order than other states. That truly would be newsworthy.

Update: Sometime PowerBlog contributor and longtime friend of Acton John H. Armstrong takes a look at the numbers and concludes, “For the overwhelming majority of inmates they are where they should be and we are all much safer, so it seems.” I think Ray expressed some similar sentiments in the office yesterday.

Here’s a new NBER working paper, “Why are Immigrants’ Incarceration Rates so Low? Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation,” by Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl.

Here’s the abstract:

The perception that immigration adversely affects crime rates led to legislation in the 1990s that particularly increased punishment of criminal aliens. In fact, immigrants have much lower institutionalization (incarceration) rates than the native born – on the order of one-fifth the rate of natives. More recently arrived immigrants have the lowest relative incarceration rates, and this difference increased from 1980 to 2000. We examine whether the improvement in immigrants’ relative incarceration rates over the last three decades is linked to increased deportation, immigrant self-selection, or deterrence. Our evidence suggests that deportation does not drive the results. Rather, the process of migration selects individuals who either have lower criminal propensities or are more responsive to deterrent effects than the average native. Immigrants who were already in the country reduced their relative institutionalization probability over the decades; and the newly arrived immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s seem to be particularly unlikely to be involved in criminal activity, consistent with increasingly positive selection along this dimension.