Penitent Man

Penitent man by Gobi
“The penitent man shall pose” by Gobi 2007

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy faces a series of challenges he must solve in order to find the Holy Grail and save his friend’s life.  The clue to overcoming one of the deadly obstacles was the penitent man”. Looking around he saw a number of decapitated bodies and quickly surmised that he needed to humble himself in a hurry or share their fate.  The same happens to people who come to prison.

Another synonym for prison is penitentiary.  In 1787 the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons developed a prison system where they believed some criminals could be reformed through hard work and meditation.  Many members of the society were Quakers, who considered the moral/religious aspect of meditation a key to reformation.  They knew that the repentance that comes from the realization of the wrong one has done will lead to lasting change.

People who commit crimes by and large are selfish people who have placed their wants and desires above the needs of others.  Many are proud and unashamed of what they have done.  When you fill up a prison full of these people, sparks will fly.  When two proud people clash there can be only one winner.  Like the decapitated bodies in Indiana Jones, heads will roll, unless one of these proud men will humble them self.

Humility comes as the result of awareness regarding one’s selfish, prideful condition and the willingness to admit that this form of behavior is what brought the person to prison. However, some in prison will double down and try to make themselves into the biggest, baddest, toughest, meanest, orneriest, foulest, strongest, most ruthless SOB in the Big House.  They lift weights compulsively to strengthen their bodies, they harden their hearts until all empathy for others is gone, and they live only to satisfy their lusts for food, sex, and drugs.  They think the way to live is to die to what separates us from the animals, and in the process become animals.

When a person in prison learns to humble them self, they become more sensitive to those around them, which allows them to react quickly, like Indy, to duck out of the way when the violence starts.  A humble person has a quiet spirit which allows them to put others before themselves even when they know of the other’s selfish intentions, thereby avoiding the wrath of the proud.  We are talking about meekness here, which some confuse for weakness.  Meekness is the combination of the character traits of patience and humility.  Not exactly something that one would expect from inmates.

So how does one learn humility in prison? The Quakers coming from a Judeo-Christian world view would not have seen meditation as an Eastern Zen Buddhist self-contemplation practice, but rather as a Biblical contemplation practice.  They would not expect a person to change on their own, but by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, not by self-revelation, but by illumination of the moral standard revealed in God’s Holy Scriptures.  Humility is both the inward and outward manifestation of the change in a person’s world view when they acknowledge God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son for who they are.

James 4:6-10 says, “But He gives more grace. Therefore, He says; God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore, submit to God. Resist the Devil and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double minded.  Lament and mourn and weep!  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord; and He will lift you up.”

Prison is a place of stark contrasts and nothing exemplifies this concept better than the contrast between the proud and the humble.  The proud are arrogant and unteachable. They will not learn the lessons of correction and if they ever get out of prison will keep coming back, doing life on the installment plan.  Those who are humbled are teachable, they will learn the lessons of correction, and when they get out of prison will never come back.

While the original model of a penitentiary failed for a number of reasons, the concept of active participation by faith-based ministries remains a vital and necessary part of the correction system. Rehabilitation cannot be accomplished by a person in isolation, but rather only in the context of Christian community, both in prison and out.

Organizations such as the Salvation Army and Prison Fellowship are well known by the general public for providing social and moral training for those incarcerated.  But there are in the U.S. literally hundreds of faith-based ministries dedicated to bringing the gospel into prison.  On any given day of the week there are thousands of paid and volunteer workers in prisons and jails across the country, meeting with hundreds of thousands of men and women.  From full church services to Bible studies to social/moral education these groups work with prison/jail chaplains to provide resources, programming and counseling that makes rehabilitation possible.  No other religion provides this much capital and man power to assist the state in reforming the lives of so many that society has already written off.

Studies have shown that without programming recidivism rates can exceed 75%. With programming provided by the state such as educational, vocational, or psychological, recidivism rates drop to 50%. Faith-based programs reduce recidivism to less than 35%. When combined with additional programs and resources on the outside for when an individual is released from incarceration recidivism rates drop even further.  One study even suggested that the first 72 hours out of prison are the key to success.  If there is a person/organization there to provide mentoring and assistance and get the individual involved in a church, the recidivism rate falls to less than 10% in some studies.

Over the last two hundred years there have been numerous attempts at prison reform. In each case there was an acknowledgment that the current system was broken and that changes needed to be made. However, each one failed to live up to the expectations and did not result in accomplishment of the stated goals.

In each case the failures could be directly related to three causes: inadequate funding, over-crowding, and poor staff training.  Prisons are expensive to operate and since they generate little revenue are a continuing drag on government budgets.  Human societies for all of recorded history have failed due to the inability to pay the full cost of maintaining the society, whether it be defense, infrastructure, or social programs.  At some point the costs exceed the economic strength of that society.

In the U.S., political parties and their candidates campaign on the ideas of lower taxes and being tough on crime.  The two concepts are mutually exclusive, you can’t do both. Being tough on crime means more police, more prosecutors, and longer sentences which translates into significant cost increases.  Lowering taxes means that the revenue to pay for government programs becomes scarce, which leads to reductions in services since the elimination of programs can be political suicide.

In corrections this means that every year prisons must do more with less.  Costs for food, clothing, services, facilities, and staffing increase.  And yet as incarceration rates increase, budgets have been held constant or even reduced.  Even the best, most successful rehabilitation programs will be affected by this and will ultimately fail.  The result is that prisons and jails become nothing more than warehouses or cattle pens where humans are contained until they must be released to once again wreak havoc on society.  The worst possible outcome with the lowest return on investment.

Since the evidence of rehabilitation is incontrovertible and human lives matter, what are we as a society willing to pay to see our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives returned to us in a condition where they no longer pose a threat to society or themselves?  What are we willing to spend to end the cycle of poverty, violence, and broken homes that results from locking people up?  What does it say about a society that claims to be a beacon of freedom and hope, yet incarcerates more people than any other country on earth?  When is enough, enough?

There must be more to corrections than retribution.  An eye for an eye was Old Covenant philosophy. At least some portion of the church understands that we are now under the New Covenant and that forgiveness and redemption are the philosophy to live by.  There should always be repercussions for violating the laws that hold our society together but hate the sin not the sinner. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Faith-based prison ministries get this and that is why we need more of them participating in the correction system.  These organizations raise their own money from their supporters to fund their prison ministries.  This is like free money to the fiscally strapped prisons.  In the day and age where outsourcing services is seen as cost effective, what could be more cost effective than free?  Sure, there needs to be coordination and oversight and that is where the chaplain comes in.  But why turn down programs that have a positive effect on the prison environment and can significantly reduce recidivism?

Moreover, since it is that critical time immediately upon release from prison that is the major decider on whether or not a person will go straight or fall back into a life of crime, the MDOC should be actively recruiting organizations to provide after care, housing, employment/job placement services in addition to mentoring and counseling services. The vast majority of people coming out of prison have lost everything while they’ve been away and most have nowhere to come home to.  The state needs to take more responsibility to help these people that they were so zealous to lock up in the first place.

There was a program called the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative (MPRI) whose original goal was to partner with non-profit organizations to help fund and coordinate these types of programs.  Yet after only two years the external portion of the MPRI program was cancelled and the funding redirected back into the MDOC, due to claims of misappropriation of funds and mismanagement by these outside groups.  Given the history of the MDOC there is more than a little irony in that allegation.  There should be considerations made to revisit this decision and encourage more faith-based organizations to come to the aide of these returning citizens.

Given human nature, not everyone can or even wants to be rehabilitated, but that is a minority of the people in prison.  A sad but true fact is that those serving life sentences, after a period of adjustment are the best-behaved inmates.  Those doing short determinate sentences, such as two years for a gun are almost completely unmanageable.  Which takes us right back to my original point about the Penitent Man: those who are willing to humble themselves can be rehabilitated.  It is up to the people in society to demand more from their representatives in the legislature and the legislature to demand more from the MDOC and the MDOC to demand more of its staff, contractors and inmates.

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