“When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” Matthew 25:39
The past few months have brought a relatively new experience into my life and ministry. In almost 30 years of serving in vocational ministry, 17 of that as a member of a church staff, I have rarely set foot inside a jail or a prison. Prior to this past year, I can think of only a few cases where I have ever been asked to visit someone in jail, either by a family member or an inmate, and that has been in either a small county facility or a small town municipal holding facility. Once, when serving as a youth pastor, I visited a young man in juvenile detention, and had the more common experience of visiting youth in group home settings. But during the past two years, that number has increased exponentially. I have come into contact with at least five individuals who have either spent time in jail or prison, or are currently incarcerated. Along with that contact has come an awareness, and a concern, that I have not previously experienced.
Obviously, a jail is not supposed to be a luxury resort. Aside from being somewhat self-defeating in terms of being a consequence for criminal behavior, or an aid to rehabilitation, there is the fact that prisoners are housed at taxpayer expense, and the more “luxury” built in to the system, the higher the cost. But I have learned that there are some humanitarian concerns that are either overlooked, or deliberately refused. Many of those held in the county system are simply awaiting trial, and have not been sentenced, but they are serving in the same place, and under the same conditions, as those who are. I’ve always operated under the assumption that in addition to basic needs, provision is made for medical conditions, such as access to a doctor and provision of prescription medication, since a prisoner can’t just go down to the corner drug store. But I have been told that’s not always the case.
Sanitation and cleanliness is an issue in the visitation room, so I can’t imagine what things are like on the other side of the wall. And while I understand the stress of working in such an environment, and the risks that are present (several law enforcement officers have been shot in the lobby of the jail facility), and I know that looking after inmates requires a level of detachment and hardness of character to be effective, the sense of relief that I feel when I turn in my badge, retrieve my belongings and walk out the front door is different than anything I have ever experienced before. The procedures, questions, suspicious looks and barked orders are disconcerting, as are the moments after presenting my ministerial credentials, when the guard, through a plexiglass window, looks hard at me to determine if what he is seeing is for real, or if I am an imposter. Having to be hand searched, rather than going through the metal detector (I have a defibrillator) is treated like it is a major disruption of routine. Obviously, there is no customer service value attached to jail visitation time. And that kind of treatment to someone visiting only lends credibility to the stories that the inmates tell about what happens inside.
In spite of all of that, it is just the county jail. Compared to the state prison system, it may seem to be luxurious. That’s probably why many inmates, when offered as part of a plea bargain, opt for time in the county jail rather than in the prison system. Prison is, according to those who have experienced it, a system for debasing and dehumanizing living beings. I understand that you are not supposed to want to go there. It is not a hotel. On the other hand, my conscience is bothered by the fact that I’ve looked past the unpleasantness of correctional institutions so as to subconsciously avoid feeling guilty about what might be happening there, because as a Christian who believes in the complete sanctity of human life, and the total redemptive ability of Jesus, I believe there is a boundary between humane treatment of convicted criminals, and cruel and unusual punishment. The denial of basic human needs falls into the latter category. Vengeance is the Lord’s, according to the scripture, and hell is not something that we should have to face until it is too late to do anything about it.
Jesus didn’t tell the criminals of his day that they deserved what they were getting. He pulled up a chair, had dinner with them, affirmed their humanity, and then he put his efforts into showing them that there is a much better way to life the one life God gave them.
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40