Raise the Level

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.

Woman in jailInstitutionalization 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.

Hope and Freedom sm2Eventually 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.


Photo Credits: © Bigstock.com

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The Least Among You

Suppose you met someone who told you she just got out of prison for terroristic threatening.

What would you think? This woman in front of you is well-groomed, dressed fashionably yet somewhat conservatively, certainly doesn’t have a prison-tough look or demeanor and timidly is talking about her seemingly impossible search for work.

Turns out, you’ll discover, she went to prison because she threatened her ex-husband with bodily harm while holding a knife, with the children in the next room. In fact, it was her oldest daughter who called the police. It wasn’t the first argument she’d had with her husband, although it had never gone this far before. The police had been called one other time, about a year earlier, when neighbors heard them arguing and were concerned. No arrests at that time, but there was a record of the call.

pink butterfly no bkgdNo drugs, no alcohol, no physical violence. She went to prison, did her time and while she was there got anger management training, a certificate in Microsoft software proficiency and another in office administrative skills. She’d had a good job before, had always been a good worker. Now she’s fighting to get work again as the first step in regaining custody of her children, who are living with her parents.

But terroristic threatening.

In today’s world, that’s a horrible thing to have on your record. It sounds like, well, you’re a terrorist, when in fact what you did, while criminal, wasn’t what we normally think of as terroristic. Legally, what I’m talking about here means you threatened someone with the intent to terrorize them, in other words, frighten them to the point they believe they’ll be harmed. It also means it’s a highly subjective crime to prosecute.

In the case above, she threatened her husband to the point her children believed he was at risk. While that wasn’t her intent, it was the predictable result, and she went to prison for it.

Being in prison, even jail, has a terrible stigma. There is reason for that; one has committed a crime. Let me explain, briefly, the difference between jail and prison: jail is where you go when you’re first arrested, before you’re convicted, and where people with shorter sentences will end up. It’s also where people who are going to prison will start out while they wait to be transported, and in some states that can be months. Prison is where people with sentences generally over one year serve their time.

Yes, these people have done something very wrong, and there is common sense in being wary when you encounter them. But more important than that, they are human beings who are struggling to make things right. For whatever reason, the woman I described above messed up to a point of breaking the law, and of course the underlying problem wasn’t something that started that night. This likely had been going on for some time. But who am I to judge her for the path that led her there?

To see prisoners and inmates as people first is critically important

in bringing about change in their lives. They have families, they love their children. While Whatever they’ve done in the past may cause you to argue they put themselves, drugs or some other thing before their children, and perhaps they did, now they want to figure out how to do the right thing. It’s a challenge for most, more than you can imagine.

monarch no kgdThere’s the young woman whose father was injecting her with heroin when she was eleven. What chance did she have? At the age of 21, she’d spent more of her adult life in jail than not. She had a three-year-old son, and she desperately wanted to do right. Today, at 25, she’s clean and sober, has an associates’ degree and a good job. All because people cared.

These stories aren’t the exception. More often than not, this is the type of history former prisoners have.

Most don’t want to go back to criminal behavior. I can’t say all of them have a heart of gold, but they have value. And yes, we should use discretion in the doors we open for those who have committed a crime in the past and not allow ourselves to be taken advantage of in any way. However, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.

Many who ended up in jail or prison got themselves caught up in a cycle of bad behavior they didn’t know how to get of, or they weren’t fully aware how deep in trouble they were. They are far from hardened criminals. They are people who really screwed up, and have been held accountable for it.

Please know I am aware there are those violent offenders it is wisest to stay away from in all circumstances, and hopefully they remain in prison. And certainly we need to use caution around sexual offenders, although I suggest you find out the specifics of the crime. Not all sexual offenders are sexual predators. Urinating in public and consensual sex with a teenager, even if you’re underage yourself, can put you on the sexual offender list in some states.

I’m also aware, from my own experience, of the trauma and anger that comes from being the victim of a crime. These are all legitimate concerns.

red butterfly no bkgdYet we need to use wisdom appropriate to the individual situation, and can’t place all former prisoners in the same category. It’s easy to dismiss them completely rather than allow for the possibility of reform and rehabilitation, change and growth. You may not be the one to give someone the in-depth counseling they need to get back on their feet, but your smile and considerate behavior can give them the confidence to get through the day.

And if you doubt this is the right way to view others who have failed, remember this: it’s how Jesus treated the thieves and prostitutes, the criminals, around him, down to his dying moments.

Photo Credits: (Sky background) © Graphic Stock; (Butterflies) © ecco — Fotolia