“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40).
Americans faithfully support charities that feed, clothe and house the destitute. Some of us even volunteer at hospitals or send cards to sick friends and relatives.
Still, Jesus’ urgings about relief for the suffering leaves us with a major gap: Very few of us actively care for the needs of prisoners or the families some of them leave behind.
Granted, prisoners these days get food, clothing and medical attention as part of their “housing arrangements,” and some have regular contact with their families. Chaplains are available in most American prisons, even if they are overstretched to serve their captive audiences.
It is in the very concept of prisons, though, that we have a massive opportunity to administer both justice and mercy. We see little of either in a system where incarceration is a one-size-fits-all remedy, where the same punishment is meted out for every type of crime with few variables other than the length of sentence.
We urge that, just as society began to question the justice of slavery in the 1800s, we must begin now to question the rightness of incarceration for many types of crime.
Certainly, criminals who are dangerous to other people should be locked away until they are no longer a threat – even if that means the rest of their lives – but the revolving door of justice shows prison does far too little to deter further crime after an inmate’s release and does far too much damage to the lives and families of those we presume to rehabilitate.
When a person is eventually to be released back into society, it makes no sense – not to mention either justice or mercy – to warehouse him or her where violence and intimidation are an everyday fact of life. There is no benefit in surrounding a young, impressionable offender with older and more hardened criminals whose impact will almost certainly be negative – if not to his personal safety, at least to his character, his criminal “skills” and the resulting chances of becoming a contributing citizen.
When breadwinners are incarcerated, the poverty of their families is a near certainty, and the absence of fathers is one of the major factors in predicting children’s future chances of committing crimes. And the cost of both operating prisons and the loss of productivity from more than a million inmates are immense burdens to society.
We don’t claim to know what a reformed justice system would look like, but given that most inmates in America are functionally illiterate, it could at least begin with emphasizing education.
We believe that society can and must devise measures that impose justice on the incorrigible while providing chances for redemption to the redeemable – “the least of these, my brethren.”