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Just Prisons: What Would Jesus Do?

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Remember prisoners
as if you were in prison with them,
and people who are mistreated
as if you were in their place. (Hebrews 13:3 CEB)


Prison is a growth industry proclaimed a recent article in FinancialTimes.com. "Brazil's economy might not be growing as fast as it used to, but investors will be given the chance to buy into what remains a true growth industry in Latin America's largest country - prisons." The article caught my attention because touting prison as one of the most lucrative investment opportunities seems just a little bizarre. When the imprisonment of people is promoted as a lucrative investment opportunity, then surely something has gone terribly wrong. Furthermore, the profit-taking of investors will need to be satisfied and so undoubtedly the state will have to keep the prisons full in order to meet the expectations of those who invest. In countries around the world, the "prison industrial complex" continues to profit from the imprisonment of men and women and the suffering that prisons cause. And yet many people say - "they're just prisoners, it doesn't really matter."

I've been in some of Brazil's horribly overcrowded, antiquated, filthy and miserable prisons. There is no doubt that something needs to be done to reduce prison overcrowding and improve the insufferable conditions in which people are inhumanely imprisoned This is a global prison problem and hardly a day goes by without news of bloody violence and death in prisons somewhere in the world. Within this past week more than 60 inmates were killed when rioting broke out in a dreadfully overcrowded prison in Venezuela, over 100 others were injured.

Last year alone, we recorded well over a thousand documented deaths in prison. In one instance alone, 360 prisoners were burned alive as the result of a fire from which there was no way of escape in Comayagua prison in Honduras. "Why should we be concerned," a reporter asked me in the aftermath of the fire, "Aren't they just prisoners who have victimized others?" The implication behind his question was that offenders simply get what they deserve when they are sent to prison - regardless of the severity of their living conditions or what befalls them in consequence.

I've been visiting prisons all over the world for a long time, and I think about prisoners and prison conditions a lot. I've seen the best of prisons and the worst of prisons, regardless of the physical condition of prisons, the common human condition is characterized by anguish, loneliness, and idleness. Sometimes I cannot get the deplorable images and painful stories out of my mind. In far too many cases animals are treated more humanely than our fellow human beings who are offenders.

The reason I first became interested in prisons was as a result of becoming captivated by Jesus' concern for prisoners, and for the marginalized and rejected people of society. Not only were prisoners included on the list of those at the center of his mission from the very beginning (Luke 4:18,), but near the end of his mission he once again named them in the compassionate mandate and measure for his true followers - "when I was in prison you came to me ... whenever you did [this] to someone overlooked or ignored ... you did it to me." (Matthew 25:36, 40 - The Message)

Even more significant to me was the fact that Jesus actually became a prisoner. He endured every anguish experienced by prisoners throughout history - He was betrayed by a friend; falsely accused on trumped-up charges; arbitrarily arrested; tried in the biased court of public opinion, and then found guilty in an unfair trial; brutalized by those in authority; condemned to receive the death penalty; ridiculed and humiliated by fellow prisoners; and publicly executed.

So I took up the cause of Jesus and have continued going to prisons and visiting inmates all over the world because I know that prisoners are real people who are embraced by the compassion and grace of Jesus Christ. It has been observed by others that "God don't make no junk," and that prisoners, like every other human being, are endowed with dignity and worth - and yes, like all of us they have fallen short of being perfect, some more visibly and violently than others.

Many people simply take prisons for granted, accepting them as a fact of life for a safe society or at worst being somewhat of a necessary "evil" for justice to be served. The history of prisons is checkered with jails and prisons being used both as unjust instruments of political, social, economic, and ironically religious coercion and control; and in other times and places being used as a rather blunt instrument deemed to serve the course of justice. However, the more I have studied the impact of prisons on the lives of people, the more I see prisons as one of the most confusing, irrational and socially destructive institutions ever devised by humankind. Prisons cannot ever be equated with justice being done. Prisons by themselves do not equate to justice. While prisons may be useful for restraining some offenders and preventing others from committing further crimes whilst they are locked up, most offenders, their families and communities do not benefit from imprisonment. The overall ecology of imprisonment is as counterproductive as dousing a fire with fuel.

Consider the following: Because of their irresponsible behavior, offenders are imprisoned where virtually all responsibility is taken from them -- in order to make them more responsible. Similarly as persons who have abused their liberty, offenders are imprisoned under conditions where they have no liberty. Yet somehow they are expected to function better once they are returned to liberty? On top of all this we accept the implicit rationale that it makes sense to incarcerate people who have made bad moral decisions in an environment populated entirely by other people who have the same bent toward bad moral decision making. That is like treating a person with an infectious disease by banishing him or her to an environment of infectious diseases. No wonder prisons are seen as universities for crime and yet we euphemistically call them correctional institutions and reformatories.

Had the deadly prison riot in Venezuela or the horrific fire in Comayagua prison occurred in a hotel, a shopping mall, or a school, society would be outraged, demanding answers and justice. But this is not the case when prisoners lose their lives or when they are simply locked up, and out of mind. I am by no means a prison abolitionist, but I know that prisons do more harm than good, for the moral, social, and spiritual ecology of prisons is a hidden disaster. The children of prisoners are significantly more likely to become the next generation of offenders, the families of prisoners inevitably break-up and fall into poverty, and nearly 70% of those released from prison re-offend within three years.

The toll that prisons take by virtue of their unmitigated failure makes them anything but a good investment in the cause of justice. Prisoners are people; human beings like you and me, and like you and me they need all the help they can get to reach their God-given purpose and potential. Prisons may protect society from certain offenders but the overuse of prisons does not improve society or make society more just.

"It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones." -Nelson Mandela