As a public defender in one of the biggest, busiest court systems in the country — Cook County, Ill. — I go to jail a lot.
I go to talk to my clients. Once I get there, I am ready for business. That was true the day I went to see my client A.J. (not his real name or initials).
His case was set for trial. I was busy pulling police reports out of my file when A.J. came in and sat down. I launched into what I wanted to go over with him.
A.J. jumped up from the table. “Let me talk!” he yelled. “I never get to talk!” Chastened, I asked him to talk as long as he liked; I would listen.
He talked for an hour and a half, nonstop. Words poured out of him like water cascading over a waterfall.
He talked about the past: why he had joined a gang young, looking for a sense of belonging and respect. What a mistake that was; he could see now how blind it was to follow the orders of others and not think for himself.
He talked about the present: living in a neighborhood rife with gangs, guns, people who stumbled around high all day. He wanted something better.
He talked about the future: he dreamed of taking classes, getting a degree. He wanted to work, pay a mortgage. He wanted to be the provider for his only child, a boy named for him. “I want him to be proud of his name,” A.J. said.
His dreams were jarringly out of place in the cinderblock desolation where we sat. In the jail, few classes, job training, re-entry programs exist. In an era of government austerity, that kind of help, and hope, is stretched thin.
What struck me as he spoke was the sheer human potential of this man, wasted. That matters for all of us because of an unflinching Scriptural text about how we can enter the kingdom of God: “for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me….just as you did it to the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:35-40)
That’s the test. Not beliefs or intentions. Actions.
Specific actions: Jesus tells us to visit people considered the worst among us, those accused of breaking the law.
It’s not just innocent prisoners we are to see; it’s prisoners. They are all Jesus.
Mark Osler writes eloquently in his book, Jesus on Death Row (Abingdon Press):
“To some, “the least of those” means poor people, and I would agree. It also means the convicted criminal in prison, to whom Christ specifically referred. …
“Thus, I have no problem with equating the hated, the guilty, even the imprisoned and reviled killer with Christ, for it is at Christ’s invitation that I compare my society’s treatment of the “least of these” with that of Christ himself.”
Since Christ is the one we visit in prison, then three things are clear:
1. We need to keep some people from going to prison in the first place.
Too many people — young men, especially — go to jail for non-violent crimes like drug possession. This is a matter of law and policy, but it is also a matter of individual tragedy. Lobbying for change in the law is good, but it is no substitute for working hands-on with those potentially vulnerable to arrest and incarceration to keep them off the conveyor belt from the streets to prison.
At my church in downtown Chicago, we have letters for people to sign during coffee hour, asking the legislature to reform harsh criminal laws. But we also match up hundreds of inner-city school children with volunteer tutors for after-school programs. The students come to church on buses, get some play and exercise, have a hot meal, and learn with someone who cares about them enough to show up week after week.
We sit beside them; our hands turn the pages of the books they hold. Their upturned faces are the face of Jesus.
2. We need to care about and come into contact with the imprisoned.
My former boss, Thomas More Donnelly, tells of his first day as a public defender. He represented defendants in bond court who had just been arrested the night before. The men and women had slept in lockups all night. Tom introduced himself and shook hands with each of the prisoners as they emerged from the lockup into court. This apparently annoyed the prosecutor, who took Tom aside after court. Tom writes:
“[H]e pointed to two hand-shaped imprints of sweat. They were the deposit from the hands of the 102 defendants as they stood before the bench resting their hands on the counter that held all the state and defense paperwork. He pointed at the pools of sweat and said, “That is what you have been shaking hands with.” He was right in acknowledging most of the defendants were very sweaty, most were dirty, and many smelled of fecal or urine odor. I, in my perverse Catholic way, took delight in the fact that that was exactly what I had been shaking hands with—the poorest of the poor. It struck me at that moment that this was exactly where Christ would intend me to be.”
(“The Leaven of the World,” 43 Gonzaga Law Review 3, p. 621, 2007/08)
Those hands are the hands of Jesus.
3. We need to help prisoners when they get out of prison.
Here are the hard, cold facts: most states allow employers to deny jobs to anyone with a criminal record. Many states deny food stamps, benefits, public housing, and voting rights to convicted felons. Their parental rights can be terminated. They can be excluded entirely from certain fields of employment.
Students convicted of drug-related offenses are ineligible for grants, loans, or work-study assistance. Federal law prohibits felons from serving on a jury, running for office, enlisting in the military.
Meanwhile, with an annual prison population of around 2.3 million in the U.S. — the highest per capita rate in the world — we have a massive prisoner re-entry challenge.
Those prisoners are Jesus, the one arrested in the dark by a mob with torches and swords. He was bound and taken before rulers who had the power of life or death over him. He had no one to advocate for him.
Who will help the vulnerable, the outcast, meet such seemingly insurmountable obstacles to the basic elements of life: work, study, food, housing, opportunity? Only people of fierce love and tenacious faith could undertake such a task.
Micah 6:8 marks the way:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.”
Justice is the prison sentence. Mercy is the letting out. Walking humbly is the taking of that sweaty, dirty hand of the prisoner, Jesus Christ, in ours.
Jeanne Bishop is a public defender in Chicago, who frequently writes from the perspective of her Christian faith. She has written for the Huffington Post and CNN.com , for newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and magazines such as Lutheran Woman Today, and for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life publication Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning, a book whose other contributors include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Prison photo, luxorphoto  / Shutterstock.com