Sunday, October 22, 2006

I was in prison...

I’ve been in a few prisons and jails, but never longer than a couple of hours. Just Visiting, not Go to Jail Do Not Pass Go kind of stuff. I didn’t think I really needed to say that, but just to be clear, I’ve never done time.

When I was a teenager, our church youth choir made a couple of visits into units around Huntsville, presenting the popular youth musicals of the 1960s and 70s. I remember thinking it ironic that we were on-stage in front of several hundred inmates singing Otis Skillings’ song, “You can have life if you want it...” I figured most of the guys would prefer to stick with the lesser sentences they had received. I particularly recall being inside the Goree Unit, which at that time was a women’s facility. I had a difficult time thinking about what so many women had done that had resulted in their sitting in front of us in prison uniforms and looking so sad.

As a pastor I have sat on the opposite side of the thick glass windows in a couple of county jails and talked to a friend on the other side who would not just get up and walk outside when our visit was over. I have visited with a convicted murderer who will one day probably have her life taken from her by the State of Texas. I’ve been inside juvenile facilities and visited with other people’s children, whom I also cared for. I’ve help bail someone out of jail a couple of times.

What I had not done until last weekend was to go back inside the jail and see where the inmates live out their lives. The Weekend of Champions event in the Houston area in early October gave me the opportunity to do that. The way the WOC is supposed to work is that celebrities of one sort or another make brief presentations to a group of prisoners and then the volunteers (like me) talk with those who are interested about faith in Jesus Christ. I was prepared for that.

But the experience turned out a bit different. In the county facility there is a place called “lock down.” That is a kind of solitary confinement, where high profile defendants, or those who have been especially dangerous, or who have gotten into some kind of trouble in the jail, are isolated from the rest of the population. They are locked in small cells with no windows to the outside world. They live out their days inside those rooms waiting for a trial or a transfer, I guess. A slot in the door serves as place to receive their food trays and to return their used ones.

I was invited to go into lock-down and talk to any interested men. They would not be allowed to see any of the presentations. Ten cells on the first floor and ten above them contained one inmate each. I walked along the bottom row, looking through the small windows in the doors, seeing if anyone would make eye contact.

Most were sleeping. They had no real way to distinguish day from night in there. And time asleep would probably be one way of claiming the time as really your own. Eventually finally I found a customer, a young black man who grew up in Houston not too far from my home. He had come to faith in Christ and was spending time daily praying and studying Scripture. His open Bible lay on the small metal table near his metal cot, next to his metal toilet. We talked about his family, how he spent his time, and I prayed for him. He was 19.

As others noticed that there was someone in the pod willing to talk, they came to their windows. Seeing me pray with one of the inmates, they assumed was a chaplain. When I finished one conversation, they would slam their hands on the glass and yell, “Chaplain! Chaplain!”

I was able to have eight pastoral conversations in the hour and a half I was in there. I met only one “innocent” prisoner. He may truly have been innocent. We are supposed to presume so until the state fulfills its obligation to prove otherwise. But the other seven were remarkably sober in accepting the consequences of their wrong choices and in regretting the impact they have had on the lives of their own family and of their victims. No one ever told me exactly what crime had brought them to this place, but one 29 year old candidly informed me that he expected to spend the rest of his life as a prisoner.

I met only one person who did not have a clear testimony of having committed his life to Christ. Nearly all had done so since their incarceration. Some had heard the gospel from a fellow prisoner before coming to lock-down. A couple had been through a Weekend of Champions a year or so before. One 19 year old Hispanic man simply turned back to the teaching he had received earlier in his life and received Christ. He was working through a correspondence Bible course and proudly showed me his workbook and his progress.

I was prepared to hear some of the “jailhouse jive” about how these inmates had turned from “crime to Christ.” I remain a bit skeptical of foxhole religion. But I was surprised by the way each of these men was able to articulate their faith, their thinking about the difference it was making in their daily life, sustaining them through the boredom, agony, and fear of life in the county jail.

Among the most memorable conversations was the one with the 17 year old Katrina evacuee named Adrian. His dread locks protruded in every direction. A small picture of Jesus was stuck on the inside of his window, looking out at anyone who passed by. Although I have never seen Jesus, I’m pretty sure that’s who the picture was supposed to be. I thought it appropriate that Jesus was inside the cell looking out.

Adrian spoke of his poor decisions and of his fate. He also spoke convincingly of his faith. I asked him about what was most difficult for him. He screwed up his face and told me that it was being treated like an animal. He was in a cage. He was fed on a tray through a slot. He had a number. He had no human contact. He felt like an animal.

I told Adrian that I had something to say that no one else in the system was going to tell him and that I wanted him to remember it and to say it to himself as often as he needed. I said, “Adrian, you are NOT an animal. You are a human being, created in the Image of God, a person loved by God, one for whom Christ died.”

After an hour and a half I left lock-down and returned to our break room. Later I sat with others in a less secure pod, in their living quarters, and spoke with them about family, God, faith, and their future. And then, a couple of hours later, I walked out of the doors without hindrance, into an elevator, through a series of sliding walls that clanked into place behind me, past security and out into a world where I can go where I please, touch my wife and children, eat out, and surf the Internet.

Every time I’ve visited one of our “correctional facilities” I have had the experience of being acutely aware of freedom as I left the building. I have also usually entertained the thought that every one of those young men is someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s husband, someone’s friend. How easily it could have been my son, my father, my friend.

This time I walked out with a new perspective. Although we refer to our prisons and jails euphemistically as “correctional facilities,” I could see that there was not much “correction” going on from the side of the institution. I’m sure that officers have their hands full managing the huge numbers of inmates in our jails and prisons. I understand that they put their lives in some jeopardy regularly. I take nothing away from that. I would not want their jobs.

What I walked away with, however, was a different perspective on the system itself. While there certainly must be exceptions, what I saw was incredibly dehumanizing. We remove almost everything from the accused or convicted that makes them human and expect then for them someday to return to society and behave like human beings. Numbers replace names. The food looks like nothing you have eaten at the worst church camp you’ve ever attended. Locked away in cages and fed through slots, denied human contact, prisoners are scarcely being “corrected.” They are clearly being punished.

I would not expect the jails and prisons to be versions of the Hilton. But the dehumanization is so, well, dehumanizing. I’m fairly certain that the Harris County Jail is not the worst facility in the world. To read about the ministry of Charles Colson is to be introduced to horrible, unimaginable conditions in jails and prisons in the U.S. and around the world.

This week I read John Grisham’s new book, The Innocent Man. I’m a Grisham fan. I’ve read all his legal novels. When I saw this at Border’s the other day I picked it up. On Thursday I was home alone and I read through most of it. I thought it was somehow different from his other novels and then discovered, to my chagrin, about half way through, that it is a work of non-fiction! This story of how the legal system failed in several cases in Ada, Oklahoma was chilling. I read the descriptions of life inside the jails and prisons of Oklahoma with the fresh background of my recent visit to our county facility.

I was also struck with the truth that God is at work inside prison walls. People come to faith in Christ there and their lives are affected by that decision. Inmates share Christ with each other. Chaplains minister compassionately. Bill Glass, Charles Colson, and others have initiated ministries that penetrate the system with something that can truly be “correctional.”

When you visit a prisoner, you have little to offer him or her concretely. You may give food to the hungry or water to the thirsty. You can give a blanket to a homeless man or medicine to the sick. But when you stand on the outside of a four inch door and speak with a man in lock-down though tiny holes below the window, you have little to offer. You have your presence and care and Christ’s presence and care, which are in fact the same thing. Adrian leaned his dark dread locks against the window and invited me to pray for him. I placed my white hand on the window and asked Christ to make his presence known to him, to defend him and to keep him mindful of God’s love. I could offer nothing more tangible than that.

I was impressed by the fact that we have many brothers and sisters in Christ incarcerated around the world. We have some kind of responsibility for them, to pray for them, to care for them, to go to them. The words of Hebrews 13:3 came to me ain a fresh way: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” I saw how true it is that visiting those in prison is a compassionate act toward Christ himself (Matt. 25:39-40).

Recently I came across this prayer in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which strangely, is full of all kinds of powerfully worded prayers like this. This is a good one to pray from the heart. It is simply a Prayer for Prisons and Correctional Institutions.

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy's sake. Amen