The Pains And Problems Of Prisoners And Their Families
Authored by Rev. Mike Furey, Georgetown, IN, USA
I remember some time ago when I was reading the fairy tale Rapunzel to my daughter (age 7 at the time). When Rapunzel was only a small girl she had been put in a tall prison tower by a "mean witch." In the years that passed, Rapunzel's golden hair grew longer and longer. Her hair grew so long that a person could climb up her hair should Rapunzel let it down through the tower window. As I sat reading the story, the text of the story said, "She was a prisoner."1 My daughter asked, "What was she in prison for?" The story did not say. But I was amazed at her inquisitiveness and the larger reality to which her question pointed. It pointed to the fact that outsiders naturally wonder why a person is imprisoned. It is the inevitable, inescapable, and even embarrassing question. Indeed, this most innocent and honest question, asked by a most innocent and honest person, can be painful to those who know the answer. At this point, I ask what are some of the pains and problems related to being a prisoner? And, how can we minister to such persons?
As I studied about the pains and problems of prisoners and their families, I noticed a theme coming through. It's not as though their problems could be summarized in one word, that's ridiculous; but for the purpose of this sermon, I observed the theme of separation. Separation.
First, there is the pain of physical separation. When the family and the prisoner are separated and divided, it hurts. It hurts so much! .....
A study of prisoners and their families at the Illinois State Penitentiary showed that forced separation is one of the number one factors for despair and for depression.2 Moms* come home from work so tired and then they have to cook, take care of the kids, clean the house. And then they have to write a letter. She's out of energy from trying to wing it on one paycheck. She can't write a letter. Husbands can't write from jail because of anger, tension... They just can't get up and even get a stamp whenever they want. A quarter is a lot of money in jail. Many men don't even know how to read or write, period. Letter writing isn't easy, most people do not know how to express themselves in a letter. My wife is not a good letter writer. I can tell you exactly what she's going to say before I open the letter. "Dear Michael, I love you. I miss you." But keep writing. Studies have shown that prisoners who have received two or more letters a month from relatives were noticeably more successful on parole than inmates who had little or no continuing correspondence.3
Then, physical separation is painful because the inmate can't participate in simple things like tucking the children in bed at night, eating a pizza with his wife during a good fun video, going for a walk together, or even having a decent raging argument where you have plenty of time to finish the ugly exchange and kiss and make up. The pain of physical separation is so great that it is just as though a death has occurred in the family!4
Then, there is another type of pain. This pain is a morale separation, or demoralization. Inside the prisoner's heart, he feels himself a total failure. He feels guilty all over. Outside of the prisoner, others make him feel a failure. They impose a social stigma. The prisoner becomes a sign of embarassment for the family. No one wants to talk about the problem. Just the fact that one of the family members has been arrested for breaking some law is bad enough.5 Worse, it is not uncommon for people to taunt the children of such a parent with name calling. "Jailbird. Jailbird."6 A wife whose husband is imprisoned is all too often treated with no respect by society, even verbally abused, and shown cruelty. Friends stop coming by. Or business persons try to make a quick cash deal on a car if a woman needs money.7 Perhaps the ultimate demoralizer is when families worry about whether their relative will come out of prison a worsened criminal, hardened, and full of perverse ideas and skills to commit new crimes. The strain of despair is so great that 93% of those inmates who are married get divorced within three years of the lock-up.8
So in prison, an inmate and his or her family feels a deep separation, a physical separation, a morale separation, and a dehumanization. Prisoners feel like they are the garbage of society.9 Prisoners are separated from what it feels like to be human. They are dehumanized in prison by being given a number, crammed in an overcrowded cell, given the same clothes to wear, by having to go through the same routine every day, going to the same places every day, eating in the designated cafeteria every day. The prisoner is told what to do and how to do it. The system guarantees boredom, pettiness, and repetitive meaningless activities. Prison existence is a literal "put-down."lO They are further dehumanized by self-hate, a low self- image, lack of privacy, and a confused identity. When I was in boot camp in the USMC I felt like one of the cattle. They made 30-40 men cram into a bathroom with a row of toilets without any stalls or privacy. I couldn't stand it. I felt so humiliated. Men in prison are in overcrowded cells with a toilet in the middle. Prisoners need to be treated like they are still human beings. Harold Morris, a former inmate and now public speaker, tells the story about one girl who waited to speak to him after his talk at her school.ll
She was concerned for her daddy, who was in prison, and she wanted to know what she could do for him. 'Just love him,' I told done told her. 'Just let him know that you care, no matter what he's done, and you don't look down on him. That will mean more to him than anything! When I was in prison, I didn't hear the word 'love' in five years.'
Prisoners need to know they are still human beings. No wonder suicide is the leading cause of death in our nation's jails.l2
As I think about the dehumanization to which inmates are subjected I wonder, "What is the purpose of a prison?"l3 Is it revenge? He'll pay! He's gettin' what he deserved! Is it prevention or deterrence? Let's lock 'em up so the bum won't do it again! Is it rehabilitation? We hope he learns a trade while in prison. Prisons in the U.S.A. were born out of a desire to see persons repent of their crimes by giving them quiet and Bibles, and to provide a humanitarian alternative to the death penalty.l4 Unfortunately in our humanitarian attempts we have provided a dehumanizing atmosphere. Caring for prisoners should include prison reform and political involvement.
Thus far, the types of separation I mentioned are decontextualization, demoralization, dehumanization, and now deprivation. They suffer the loss of goods and services, if their TV breaks down they just can't go get another one or get it fixed. They suffer the loss of liberty and autonomy, heterosexual relationships, and security.15 I will amplify their loss of security since I implicitly mentioned the other losses already. In prison, one's life is constantly in danger; it is not a safe place. In my last visit with our beloved friend "Joe," he spent an hour almost non-stop about stories of violence and death in his world. In prison life you have to join a gang, a clique in order to stay alive. Someone will try to "punk" you your first day in, so you better be ready to fight or else you get nailed with a weak reputation and can expect to be sexually exploited from then on. In prison there are rival gangs and racial tensions. Blacks play basketball with blacks, whites with whites. It is too easy to get "knifed" in a game when whites play blacks. If one little temper flares up, a dude has grounds to jack you up with his silver straight edge. And on and on the dark and dangerous tales can go.
The last type of separation I will mention is separation from God: spiritual divorcement. However, this type of separation is characteristic of all persons. We all live in a world which distances us from God and divorces us from him. Unfortunately, many of us live as though we can expect our next delicious meal to be there, our mate to kiss us, our pay check to be there, and if our car doesn't start, our mechanic will be there. At this point, prisoners can minister to us. They live in a world where all the props of reality and the niceities of society are stripped away. They live in a lonely, guilty, inhumane, and hostile world. But so do we. Only they live in an environment that removes all the obstacles that keep a person from thinking about God. In prison they have the greatest opportunity to think. In a sense God is the only real hope they have. But also that is true for us. It is when we come to the lowest nadir of despair and hopelessness when we have the greatest opportunity to find God and to experience his offer of hope.
Isaiah 40:27-31 gives a message of hope to a people who are exiled, imprisoned, and beaten down. Isaiah is speaking to the second generation descendants of a nation that was uprooted and transported from the land of Israel to the land of Babylon, almost 900 miles away. The entire country was taken captive as prisoners. According to the Oriental mind when a country was defeated the God of that country was also defeated. The second generation Jews were convinced that Yahweh was either a "has-been" or didn't care. As they looked about them, as they looked from the eye of natural reason, they saw their Babylonian masters were superior in every way. They own the world, they own magnificent buildings like the famous hanging gardens of Babylon, they own advanced technological skills, and now they own us. Did the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk, whip the God of Israel? In this setting Isaiah is inspired to combat the hopelessness of the Jews. He reminds them it is because of their father's and mother's sin that they have been exiled. He reminds them that Yahweh is the true Lord. The nation Babylon, like Egypt and Assyria and others before, is a tool of God. Babylon is just a drop in the bucket. All the nations of the world rise and fall because God lets them come and go as he pleases. In fact, God was about to let Babylon fall from power. He was about to issue an order from his throne for the rise of another nation, Persia, which will come to the service of Israel. Now God is calling all those who are weary and who would renew their hope in Him.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God"? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
How can we minister to those affected by prison? By basing our own hope in God himself. Philip Yancey writes about Ron Nikkel.l6 Ron goes all over the world ministering to persons in prisons. He would go to prisons to minister and he would hate to use the clich "Christ is the answer." He knew it was true and believed it since childhood, but it was in visiting the prisoners themselves that he finally understood the meaning of "Christ is the answer." They proved to him the reality of a theology that had been little more than a mental exercise for him. They showed him faith at its most basic- the opposite of the kind of health and wealth gospel you hear in North America. Those prisoners' lives may never improve, yet still THEY LEARN TO SHOW LOVE AND JOY. We need to strip away all the garbage we have heaped up in our minds that we use to define life, religion, self, God, and see that we are robbing ourselves when our fundamental hope is not rooted in God himself- not in cars, not in boyfriends or girlfriends, not in our abilities, not in our education, not in the schemes and dreams for our children, but in our hope in God himself.
Chuck Colson and Ron Nikkel went to visit prisoners in Zambia in 1986.17 They went to a maximum security prison which had a secret inner prison built inside to hold the very worst offenders. Their "guide" was a former prisoner named Nego who spent twelve years in that Zambian jail. To Nego's amazement the guards let them all in the secret prison. Ron gives the following account:
"We approached a steel cagelike building covered with wire mesh. Cells line the outside of the cage, surrounding a 'courtyard' 15 by 40 feet. Twenty three hours of each day the prisoners are kept in cells so small that they cannot all lie down at once. For one hour they are allowed to walk around in the small court- yard. Nego had spent 12 years in those cells. "When we approached the inner prison, we could see sets of eyes peering at us from a two-inch space under the steel gate. And when the gate swung open, it revealed squalor unlike any I have seen anywhere. There were no sanitation facilities--in fact, the prisoners were forced to defecate in their foodpans. The blazing African sun had heated up the steel enclosure unbearably. I could hardly breathe in the foul, stifling atmosphere of that place. How could human beings possibly live in such a place, I wondered. "And yet, here is what happened when Nego told them who we were. Eighty of the 120 prisoners went to the back wall and assembled in rows. At a given signal, they began singing--hymns, Christian hymns, in beautiful four-part harmony. Nego whispered to me that 35 of those men had been sentenced to death and would soon face execution. "I was overwhelmed by the contrast between their peaceful, serene faces and the horror of their surroundings. Just behind them, in the darkness, I could make out an elaborate charcoal sketch drawn on the wall. It showed Jesus, stretched out on a cross. The prisoners must have spent hours working on it. And it struck me with great force that Christ was there with them. Be was sharing their suffering, and giving them joy enough to sing in such a place. "I was supposed to speak to them, to offer some inspiring words of faith. But I could only mumble a few words of greeting. They [his italics] were the teachers, not I."
How can we minister to prisoners and their families? By being aware of their decontextualization or physical separation, demoralization, dehumanization, and deprivation. And by being aware of our and their divorcement from God. How can we minister to them? By our own belief and conviction that God is the Lord! He is the Creator. We is the strength giver. We must wait for him.
Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
One commentator says:18 "The soaring eagle is borne aloft not by his powerful sings, but by the wind's currents lifting his rigid pinions. Those waiting are those prepared to be lifted up and carried aloft by the spirit of God in his time and in his way."
We must wait for him. We must hope in God himself. Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
*Since mostly men are imprisoned, I will use this type of language.
1 Lucy Kincaid, Now You Can Read Rapunzel, illust. Georgina Hargreaves (Cambridge, England: Brimax Books, 1985), p. 9.
2 Tom Adams, The Jail: Mission Field For Churches (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press,1985), pp. 92-93.
3 Duane Pederson, How To Establish A Jail And Prison Ministry: A Basic Training Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979), p. 90.
4 Ibid., pp. 90-91.
6 Adams, Jail, p. 94.
7 Ibid., pp. 93-94.
8 Gilbert Silverman and William B. Oglesby, "The New Birth Phenomenon During Imprisonment: Corrective Emotional Experience Or Flight Into Health?" Pastoral Psychology, 31 (#3, Spring 1983), 179-183, p. 180.
9 Philip Yancey, "Holy Subversion: Inside The World's Prisons, Christians Are Quietly Undermining The Powers Of This Age," Christianity Today, 32 (February, 5, 1988), 14-20, p. 18.
10 Paul W. Keve, Prison Life And Human Worth (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1974), p. 15.
11 Harold Morris, "Today Is The Day To Love, Fundamentalist Journal, 7 (March 1988), 29 + 38, p. 38.
12 Sol Chaneles, ed., Prisons And Prisoners: Historical Documents (New York, NY: Haworth Press, 1985), p. 127.
13 Keve, Worth, p. 7.
14 Anthony E. Harvey, "Custody: And The Ministry To Prisoners," Theology, 78 (February 1975), 82-90.
15 Nicolette Parisi, ed., Coping With Imprisonment (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1982), pp. 9-26.
16 Yancey, Subversion, p. 20.
18 John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 25 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), pp. 95-96.