Jesus coupled himself with the least in society when he said: “I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:36 ESV). It’s no surprise: imprisonment was not unheard of for the early church. Paul penned many New Testament letters while he was in custody.
And Psalm 102 reminds us that God’s heart goes out to the interned. “From heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die.”
A concerning trend of late has been the growth of “for profit” prisons. Spearheaded by companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the goal is to relieve states of the job of running prisons. Almost half of American prisoners are currently held in privately run prisons.
Many have taken issue with this concept. In March, 33 faith organizations signed an open letter that addressed moral and logistical concerns.
Leading the charge, the United Methodist Church organized a website and campaign for the April 18th National Call-In Day to inspire concerned Christians to call their governor and express their concerns. Sojourners has also taken the lead, urging Christians to take action on the issue.
In the last 30 years the western trend toward privatization has affected prisons. Many prisons worldwide are run for a profit, which raises serious difficulties. A business has to bring in more revenue than it spends in expenses; this means a prison needs prisoners, and lots of them.
One of the troubling parts of CCA’s recent growth campaign has been their requirement that a CCA-operated prison is kept 90 percent full.
Is this in the best interest of the American prison population?
The writer of Hebrews makes a point to the church at large that they should “[r]emember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Hebrews 13:3).
In the same vein as immigration and poverty, we must look at the situation as a body of believers whose hearts break for those being mistreated. Our prison population is full of men and women that are lost and hurting. They are outcasts in society, something that Jesus and the early church shared.
How often do we pray for those in prison? Whether we know someone behind bars or not, there are millions of Americans that are in grave need of prayer and attention. Paul makes special mention of Onesiphorus in 2 Timothy, who spent time visiting and supporting Paul in prison.
Are we, as forgiven members of the Kingdom of God, so different from inmates? In Galatians 3, salvation through grace and the reprieve from the law is likened to release from prison. “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed … But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
Jesus’ words fought for the humanity and dignity of those that society had excluded. Let us, as the body of Christ, reconsider and take a stand for the millions of men and women affected by prison restructuring. Those in the most need of forgiveness and a new path are being left behind again. They are now being handed from company to company.
Jesus was adamantly against merging temple functions and profit (Matthew 21:12). What makes us so sure he wouldn’t feel the same way about correctional facilities?
Let’s not forget that behind a system there is a motivation. We should be careful when we choose this motivating factor, and what is money if not the most consuming motivation of human activity?
Dale Galaro teaches high school ESL and math classes in Honduras.
Prison bars, rook76 / Shutterstock.com