There was an article today in the America magazine concerning U.S. prisons. There was the usual list of statistics concerning who is in prison, and the of course the age old discussion as to how to assimilate persons back into society. To be sure the article reiterated that the largest problem we have in prisons today is the 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality. Since we all have very little contact with prisoners or the prison system, we do not think much about the conditions in our nations prisons.
When I was at St. Anne, in Dixon, IL, we were down the street from one of Illinois' medium security prisons. Three times a day the guards would gush out of the confines, looking to get home. Unlike their contemporaries in law enforcement, there was no hanging around with the next shift, just to chat. I think that says something about what it must be like 'inside.'
Studies that have been done detail the violence, the cramped conditions, lack of educational and social orientation programs. One writer once compared a jail cell to living in one's bathroom for eighteen hours a day. This is where the debate becomes heated. The question that comes around again and again is the purpose of prison. Is it to keep bad people far away from everyone else, or is it rehabilitate them back into society. As a culture we have gone back and forth on this question for ages.
Many of those in prison are suffering from addictions. Yet, the appropriate programs of therapy and rehabilitation are not available. Some of the prisoners have emotional, learning, or affective disorders. Again, many prisons lack the adequate staff or facilities to help these persons. And once outside of prison, what tools do we utilize to assist these people regain entrance into society.
We can understand how this is a human rights problem. If we simply want to warehouse criminals, that borders on vengeance. Obviously we cannot be so simplistic to think a big hug and a sticker will make peoples change their lives around. But if as Christians we are about reconciliation, healing, and peace, then we need to take a very close look at our correctional system. Perhaps we need to move even farther back and take a peek at neighborhoods, schools, and families.
This is a big problem which calls for a lot of people to work together for the common good. When Jesus told us to visit those in prison, he was asking us to love and respect these people as well. May we bear each other up as Jesus bore us up on the cross.