The Common Good
September/October 2007

God Behind Bars

by Nancy Hastings Sehested | September/October 2007

In the prison-industrial complex, is there hope for redemption?

If I threw open my arms and twirled all around, my fingertips could outline the tree-topped mountains encircling me. It is an ideal place for a retreat center: secluded and picturesque. Instead, it is the state's choice for a maximum-security prison. Far away from public view, the harsh concrete buildings look out of place against these gentle mountains.

Colorful flowers mark the path to the gatehouse. Then the stripping away begins in earnest. It is a gray day every day in this prison. Gray walls, gray floors, and gray ceilings. The gray uniforms worn by the men can fade their faces into obscurity. The blue uniforms of the staff can create the same effect. Holding a gaze is crucial in seeing the person beyond the clothing. A simple "hello" can seem like a subversive act in a place where everyone is defined by role.

As the seventh door clanged shut behind me in this seventh year of my work as a chaplain, I passed two prisoners cleaning the floors. An officer called them to another part of the hallway. As they pulled their mops behind them, I heard them chant in a barely audible tone, "Is master gonna sell us tomorrow?" I made my way to my desk and prayed my usual morning prayer of hope that I would not become so accustomed to this place that I rendered it normal, benign, or the inevitable consequence of criminal behavior.

"James," serving a 12-year sentence on a drug offense, helped to answer my morning prayer. Every time I see him, he has a smile on his face.

"How do you do it, James? How do you stay so happy?" I asked.

He asked me if I wanted to know the truth. Well, of course. "You know, Chap, people like me have to tap-dance and shuffle with a smile on our face no matter how we feel. White people like that. They don't care about me or my life, or whether I am guilty or innocent. I am not a man to them. So I 'bojangle' through the day and let them think that I'm happy to be here. We are just playing a game. I call the game 'survival.'"

For prisoners, every day is a struggle for survival. The monotony of the daily round is enough to deaden the spirit. The relentless noise on the housing units—shouting conversations, clanging doors, blowing fans, flushing toilets, overhead announcements—means that there are few occasions for quiet and rest. Regular pat-down searches, strip searches, and cell searches occur in the endless hunt for contraband. Mail call can be a heaven or a hell for a man.

Frustration and anger can erupt into a physical conflict in a heartbeat, leaving everyone feeling vulnerable. Techniques for survival are often well-learned from previous life and honed in prison: abuse or be abused, con or be conned. With inmates' past before them and their future behind them, hopelessness can slither all too easily through a cell door.

Yet I have never known a place more vivid with possibility. Here in this place of the diminishment of body and soul, I find men who hunger for redemption. Here in this place of shame and humiliation, I find men willing to struggle to find their worth. It is a marvel that this longing for soul freedom and healing has not been snuffed out. They are like plants that bend toward the light, no matter how dim the room. One retired pastor commented on the small group that he leads as a volunteer: "I can't think of any church group that I have known in all my years that was as committed to inner transformation as these prisoners. Doesn't it just knock your socks off that it could happen here? Where does that spirit come from?"

For our weekly writing group, 10 men plant themselves in a circle and bend toward the light of hope. Six of the men are serving life sentences. The conversations are enlivened by the mix of men from the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Rastafarian faiths. Through their poetry and stories, they listen for commonality in their life experiences. One man wrote of his childhood abuse. Then he spoke of his crime: rape. He asked, "Why did I commit such a horrible crime when the same horror was done to me as a child? What kind of monster is in me that I could not stop when the woman yelled 'stop'?"

His question sent a shudder through us all. We sat on the precipice of sheer-cliff silence and peered into the abyss of unanswerable questions. What creates in us the ability to inflict wounds through the cavern of our own wounds? What is it in us that can hear the cries of the violated, the abused, the wounded, and the impoverished, yet not stop the perpetuation of the violence?

THE QUESTION DOES not become easier when moved beyond the personal to the public. What does it take for congregations, communities, and nations to halt our bent toward violence? Is this the question that led to Jesus' tears as he wept over Jerusalem and lamented, "Would that you knew the things that make for peace"?

The prison-industrial complex is just that: complex. It is a complicated web of inherent racism and classism with a macro-economic foundation amid a swirl of theories about reformation, re-education, and recidivism. Many of our biggest prisons are hidden in plain view, plopped down in communities where the desperation for jobs is high.

Most prisoners will return to life outside the razor-wire fences. While incarcerated, prisoners are subject to a dehumanizing system based on the belief that if we make prison life bad enough they will not want to return. The opposite is true: If we make prison good enough, they will not return. Studies indicate that education and job training cut the recidivism rate. Yet our nation continues to build giant prisons at increasingly budget-breaking costs.

The penitentiary was birthed in this country as a prison reform movement. It was the progressive idea of Quakers, among others, who envisioned the prisoner becoming the penitent rather than the punished. The locus of concern became the prisoner's soul. Solitude, reflection, and hard labor were the recipe for reclamation, with ominous words written on the cell block wall: God sees you. Signs of another reform movement are beginning to pop up in our day. Valiant people of faith from every corner of our country are writing on the walls of our houses of legislation, our houses of worship, and our houses of big business: God sees us.

As people of faith, our task begins in the bedrock of what it means to be human and created in God's image. Prisons confront us with our truest beliefs about conversion, forgiveness, justice, and mercy. We find out what we human beings are capable of doing. We cannot escape the reflection in the mirror. We are all a mixed-up mess of good and evil. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is growing tall and strong smack dab in the center of our souls. Is transformation possible?

One of our tough captains, with 25 years of experience in prisons, came into my office. He stood holding the handle of the office door. With his eyes staring at the floor, he said to me, "I'm having a tough time. I'm losing all that really matters to me. I've messed up with my wife and kids. I have given my life to things that don't matter. This morning as I stood in the master control room, I watched as hundreds of inmates came to the chow hall. And the thought came over me: God loves every one of those guys. They've made mistakes, but God can forgive them. Now I am wondering if God can forgive me. I've hurt people all my life. Now I'm tired of it. I don't want to do any more hurting of anybody. Chap, can you pray for me?"

Later, as I bend down to the trap window of a solitary confinement cell, I see a troubled face peering through the opening. I pray the same prayer that I offered to the correctional officer: God, have mercy. "Manuel" looked at me and said, "Chap, when will it be enough? When will I have paid my debt? No matter what I do, it doesn't matter. I am in the 'hole' because an officer said my shoe wasn't tied. I told him that it was. He said, 'Boy, tie your damn shoe.' I told him that my name wasn't 'boy.' I was given 30 days for disobeying a direct order. You religious people talk about mercy, but I don't think it exists."

The Jesus we follow had mercy for his disappointing disciples as well as his merciless enemies. They did not deserve it. But mercy is not mercy if it is offered to those who deserve it. Mercy is not going "soft on crime." Mercy is not a magnanimous gesture out of the goodness of our hearts. It is not ignoring brutalities or dismissing horrendous violent actions.

Mercy is God's interruption of our ceaseless round of retaliation and punishment. Mercy is an intervention for the common good. It is appealing to the holy possibility of a transformation of broken lives. Mercy trusts God's radical way of opening up a future. It is the mark of Cain, the mark of protection from the endless cycle of vengeance. It is the narrow gate, the threshold into God's shalom.

Christ have mercy.

Nancy Hastings Sehested, co-pastor of the Circle of Mercy congregation, is a Baptist preacher and state prison chaplain living in the mountains of North Carolina. Prisoner names in this article are pseudonyms.

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