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A friend here in Nashville is helping to plant a church in a nearby state prison, and recently got approval to start having outsiders come and join for worship. First we have to go through the volunteer application process, so I attended a mandatory training last week to see what it would take to go to prison for church.
Up to now my experience with the correctional systems in the US has been pretty limited. Ten years ago when I was a summer mail carrier for the US Postal Service (yes, I drove the white trucks!), I remember certain neighborhoods in Grand Rapids where many households received letters from prison. They were always addressed in pencil, with a return address that included an inmate number. I would wonder what they said, and what it was like for those families to hear from their loved ones behind bars.
My limited experience is probably typical. Unless you have a friend or family member incarcerated, it’s easy to go through daily life without giving much thought to the 2 million-plus people who are incarcerated in this country. The US has more people behind bars than any other nation on the globe. We have 5% of the world’s population but we are home to 25% of the world’s prisoners. We imprison people at 7 times the rate that Canada does, and 2.5 times the rate that Mexico does. I confess that I really don’t understand our criminal justice system very well; I don’t understand the way we sentence people, or how we determine where they’ll be imprisoned, for how long, and with what hope of parole or release. I know bits and pieces of the statistics about recidivism, and about how hard it is for ex-offenders to make their way in society. I know the whole system is really complicated, and I am daunted by it. Daunted too by how strongly incarceration rates are linked to race, education, and economics. I know the gist of Michelle Alexander’s recent book on mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, but it’s probably time I actually read it.
It’s feeling harder, or more perilous, to ignore the US prison system. This is especially true here in Tennessee, where there’s been a recent politically motivated push to set execution dates for many long term death row inmates. Last week, partially in response to the ongoing difficulty of obtaining lethal injection medications, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam approved the use of the electric chair for upcoming executions. The electric chair. And there’s been more media coverage of efforts to expose the realities of for-profit prisons, such as those run by the Corrections Corporation of America. For-profit prisons. Seriously, think about it.
The volunteer training session itself, attended entirely by those of us who hope to gain access as “religious worker volunteers,” seemed designed to scare or frustrate or both. We spent half an hour becoming familiar with our responsibilities related to PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act. We waded through a pile of papers to read and sign. We were informed of the nuances of the dress code for volunteers, and reminded that the security officers and wardens have ample subjective decision making power to deny someone entrance based on what he or she is wearing. We were warned not to keep any unlabeled prescription drugs or even vitamins in our vehicles, because you never know when the drug-sniffing dogs will inspect the parking lot. We’ll need to complete an online application and obtain multiple reference letters, and then a volunteer coordinator or chaplain will have to process the paperwork. I’m expecting it will be months before I hear whether or not I’ll get a badge to gain entry.
I keep thinking of Jesus’ words in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, where he states quite plainly that whatever his followers do, or neglect to do, for the sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned, is done or left undone as to Christ himself. I’ve usually pictured that passage along the lines of the individual interactions—spending time with someone in the hospital, handing a plate of food to someone in a soup kitchen, and so on. But lately I’ve noticed the deeper wisdom behind the injunctions to care for “the least of these.” Meeting the needs and hearing the stories of individuals is often our entry point into caring about the wider issues that impact their lives. It can be hard to care about something as abstract as “food scarcity in our local community,” for instance, unless we can connect it to faces and names. Those faces and names become touchpoints for us as we try to stay motivated in addressing wider systems of suffering and injustice. It can start with one visit or one meal or one change of clothes, and lead to actions that impact entire communities.
I don’t know how long it will be before I might glimpse firsthand what life is like for those in prison in my community, and I sense that there are powerful influences that would prefer to keep average citizens like me blissfully ignorant of the corrections system. But as I sat in that church sanctuary for the volunteer training and listened to the state employee deliver her powerpoint from behind a table whose front panel was carved with the words, “this do in remembrance of me,” I could not shake the feeling that the One who was subjected to execution as a criminal is calling us to open our eyes and our hearts to the realities of our current prison system.