Prisons are sacred places. There our society claims control over the lives of men and women; there we assume the role of God. And whether the prison is a large one covering acres of ground, or compresses inmates on high landings, the air within holds a particular density, a palpable weight created not only by the crimes the inmates have committed, but also by the ownership we have taken of them, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Most of the prison population is drawn from the underbelly of our society. Prisons are, in a real sense, anti-social. They take the people who do not fit into responsible society and make them even less fit to do so. That’s why any worthwhile prison reform should concentrate on reminding the prisoner that he/she remains a citizen, a son or daughter, a partner, and equip them to make a better job of these relationships.
Public opinion on penal matters is more complicated than the tabloids would have us believe. A surprising number of people become fascinated by prisons once they learn the truth about them. However, too many people still think about criminal justice in ways that reinforce the human drive to degrade those we punish and to heighten our own sense of superiority.
Sadly, this approach has deep roots in the Christian tradition. Just think of the theological orthodoxies that separate “us” from “them”, “saint” from “sinner”, “damned” from “blessed” and “criminal” from “innocent”. The problem with such a bi-polar division between them and us is that it fails to account for the radical interconnectedness of all creation, including those deemed “criminal” among us.
The grace modelled for us in the life of Jesus is a profound love and concern for others. It tells us that we are all liberated from the wages of sin. The great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, once remarked that Jesus on the cross, with the two thieves who were condemned with him, made up the first Christian community. Like Jesus, these two criminals had been arrested somewhere, locked up, and sentenced by some judge in the course of the previous three days. And now they hang on their crosses and find themselves in a unique relationship with him.
Barth goes on to suggest that Christian community is manifest wherever a group of people is with Jesus in such a way that they are directly affected by his promise and assurance. What, then, are we to take from what one might call a “theology of suffering presence”? How should people of faith, hope and love deal with the ‘criminals’ among us?
Living out a Christlike suffering presence with offenders, when they have committed violent crimes, is difficult. Think of some testimonies like the mother who can’t sleep, tormented by wondering if her slain daughter’s last cry was “Mum”; the jogger who can’t forget the crack of her nose bleeding just before her rapist beat her to unconsciousness; or the woman who goes away each Christmas because that’s the season when her ex-husband stabbed their son and daughter.
Anyone contemplating the Christian values of penance, forgiveness and reconciliation, must face head-on the memory of such acts. And with the memory of the executed God to guide us, we must confront our understandable thirst for revenge. In short, we must embody the difference that Jesus’ theology makes in the service of humanity’s intimate social connectedness. And we must also deal seriously with the grotesque divisions produced and maintained by the prison-complex that routinely deals in the currency of lost human connections.
I’ll conclude with a quotation from the great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, which I often reflect on: “When you go from your surroundings into a prison, you do not go out of a world of harmony, light and order into a world of guilt and unfreedom; you stay where you have been all the time. It is merely made clearer to your bodily sense what has been surrounding you all the time”. (The Prison Pastorate in Mission and Grace, Sheed & Ward, 1966).