Saturday, December 31, 2011

Earth Stood Hard as Iron

Tonight my friend Lynne sang In the Bleak Midwinter at 5 o'clock worship. It was very affecting; a beautiful song, beautifully sung.

In the bleak midwinter,
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.

Christina Rosetti was not writing about prison on a literal level. She was writing about the moment before the Incarnation, before a people in darkness saw a great light.

Figuratively, however, Rosetti's imagery evokes the winter of the heart that prison must be. The isolation and hopeless desperation experienced by many inmates are hard for those of us on the outside to understand. But we should not doubt the depth of the despair within the walls.

Prison ministry seeks to respond to this terrible void, in a place where all seems hard as iron. That is why I serve as a board member of Prison Congregations of America, which works to organize church communities within prisons.

In such a community, centered on Christ, the spirit flows. Water is no longer like a stone, but rather a cup of kindness to each storm-tossed soul.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Paradigm Shift Shall Surely Come

This blog turned three yesterday.

Depending on how one measures, that is arguably a fairly long time. Senator Jim Webb’s proposal for a national sentencing reform commission, for example, has come and gone.

By broader measures of duration, however, three years is not that long at all. The dominant paradigm of mass incarceration remains very much in place in American criminal justice.

Yes, there are some reform experiments underway in cash-strapped states that can longer afford to lock so many people up for so long. But the fundamental focus on prison and punishment remains very much in place as 2011 draws to a close, just as it did in 2008 when I put up my first post.

Paradigm shift shall surely come to American corrections. It just won’t come on cue, merely because one year gives way to another.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Glen Loury on Factories For Producing Inmates

Glen Loury’commentary on America’s correctional Leviathan came to my attention in 2009. Though I knew he taught at Brown, I didn’t realize until I watched this video that his primary discipline is economics

The economic perspective is a valuable one in approaching questions of incarceration, class, and race.

How is it, for example that most of the people who go to prison for involvement with drugs are poor and non-white? And how is it that America, with five percent of the world's population, has 25 percent of the world’s prison population?

Loury describes the American criminal justice system as “an engine for producing and reproducing racial inequality. “ In certain neighborhoods, he argues, jails and prisons are essentially “factories for producing inmates.”

The factory works by constantly exposing new generations to a culture of entrenched interaction with the prison system. Young men in these poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods tend to have few positive role models in their lives — in large part because widespread incarceration has taken such a toll on their social networks.

Young men in this setting often become enmeshed with the law themselves and get sent to prison. The percentage of such men who are from racial minorities is far disporportionate to those groups' percentage of the U.S. population as a whole.

Upon returning to the neighborhood after serving a prison term, these men (and a few women) face daunting challenges in finding proper employment. The Great Recession and its high-unemployment aftermath have only added to these challenges.

Yet the Recession has also spurred efforts in some states to reform a prison system that has become too costly to sustain. To use economic parlance, what’s needed is a change in the business model for the whole system.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Setting Free the Captives, Literal and Figurative

Advent imagery is very strong on release of prisoners.

One example is in a hymn called Hark the Glad Sound, which we sang at worship in the sanctuary at Shepherd of the Valley in Apple Valley, Minn., over the weekend.

He comes the prisoners to release
In Satan’s bondage held
The gates of brass before him burst
The iron fetters yield.

Such imagery is scarcely surprising, when one considers the source. It comes right out of the prophet Isaiah, who sought to offer a prophetic word of encouragement to Israelites exiled in Babylon.

But in what sense are people today prisoners in need of release?  The anwer turns, of course, on how one understands the reality of sin.

During the Reformation, Luther and Erasmus had a lively debate about what sin does to the concept of free will. Luther argued that sin throws the will into bondage. Erasmus thought that view was too extreme and discounts the degree to which, despite sin, humans are still made in God's image.

Reflecting on the concept of captivity from the comfort of  a comfortable suburban home is a rather odd experience. Though I live far from any literal prison, I see four possibilities:

• Literally in prison, but spiritually free

• Literally in prison, and also spiritually in bondage

• Literally free (not in prison), but spiritually in bondage

• Literally and figuratively free

Given these logical possibilities, it makes sense that St. Paul was such a formative explicator of the concept of spiritual freedom. For Paul, after all, spend considerable time in a literal prison cell.