Two years ago my church, in particular my priest, was fighting hard for hot meals for the inmates at our county jail. Up to that time the best they got was sandwiches, made with stale bread and what in only the loosest term possible can be called meat, such as bologna.
This wasn’t Oscar-Meyer bologna. It was institutional, and the packaging revealed it was a “meat substitute” just as the cheese used was a “dairy substitute.” This sandwich filler cracked and crumbled when you bent it. It was like eating cardboard.
Institutionalization is intended to be separation from society, not a series of debilitating punishments that can affect your health and mental state for life. With that in mind, we sought to bring our local jail to its senses and feed the inmates something edible. Not gourmet meals, not specialty food, simply something edible.
Shockingly, we received intense and harsh criticism from the community. My favorite was this, written in a review on our Facebook page: “these people should stop trying to change the world and focus on the Gospel instead.”
For anyone reading this not familiar with the Christian gospels, they tell of a Christ who reached out to the thieves and prostitutes around him, down to his dying moments. He didn’t say, “they committed a crime. They deserve whatever happens to them in there” as thousands in our community told us, in writing.
I recognize that different denominations and congregations practice their faith differently than I do. That diversity in beliefs and priorities creates tension as well as reasoned debate, and I won’t tout my beliefs as the Absolute Truth. But I do believe condemning someone to abuse and cruelty because they committed a crime is not a godly plan.
And malnourishment is abusive, to the mind and the body. I’m proud to say the Sheriff eventually relented and the jail now serves two hot meals a day, in addition to a cold breakfast. (Breakfast, it should be noted, was always a fairly decent meal in that jail.) When they make sack lunches for inmates on a work detail, it’s usually peanut butter and jelly, which I’m told (for jail food) is pretty good, too.
We now have a new sheriff who is quietly making improvements in what is known as the “worst jail in the state.” Previous sheriffs took pride in that designation. He doesn’t. He is raising the level in his jail, demanding the inmates be treated in a humane manner, knowing that ultimately, society benefits from such behavior.
Eventually most inmates will be back among us, and if they come out of jail beaten down and emotionally battered, their ability to function well in their community is severely compromised.
If you commit a crime, you should pay the appropriate price. But jails are inherently bad places to be. We don’t need to take steps to make them worse.
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