Prison as Purgatory

Stephen Webb makes a startling claim at the close of his First Things article on the U.S. penal system: “Revival will come to America when Christians begin doing justice to the American prison system.” He speaks from his experience in prison ministry and by analogy argues to substantiate his remarkable claim. We have to ask: What is the fundamental link between prison reform and national spiritual revival?

Frankly, when I read his piece for the first time, I felt myself uneasy, sensing that something was wrong. Part of this unease came from an assertion, almost a plea, that I have heard in one form or another for the two and a half years I have worked as a prison volunteer: “We need a voice.” This from a man all too aware of his crimes and his powerlessness within the system (yes, he is a felon), but more directly, his woeful prospects once he finishes his sentence. Stephen Webb’s article is not that voice, I reckon.

This is not a denial of the three telling assertions that Webb makes. Quite the contrary, I can’t but agree with his analysis. He sees the common human condition, bondage to sin in a fallen world, as most clearly exemplified in the life of prisoners. He calls for a re-examination of notions of justice in terms of the traditional teaching about Purgatory. Divine justice is restorative, and prison reform should follow from or reflect this model. We need to see rehabilitation not punishment as the end of correction. Finally he points to the paradox of modern conceptions of heaven – shall we say caricatures that pass for concepts. For too many, heaven appears as eternal imprisonment among the unbearably devout. Re-envisioning the ends of the criminal justice system and its practice points directly to a profound engagement with Christian life: faith, contrition, penance, amendment, the just life and the afterlife. We have to see ourselves in those who live behind bars and revive our Christian commitment.

I think, “What would the inmate who asked ‘for a voice’ say to Stephen Webb?”

Perhaps that national revival sounds distant, that practical matters of survival (minimum wage jobs and the expectation of suspicion on the part of any employer), the lived-sense that a “debt to society” is never repaid, that, yes, they are contaminated or stained in some fundamental way. As far as the bondage of sin is concerned, few of us face the challenges of “the hood.” As one man said to me, “I can look forward to a minimum wage job, pushed to provide for myself and family, or I can meet old friends and earn fifteen hundred dollars a day.” Yes, it is a stereotype, but so many of the inmates grew up in “the hood,” raised in a-traditional families, ran drugs as children, and hustled as teenagers. Crime was adaptation in order to survive. Can we excuse it? No, but what will replace it?

Everything I have written here, I am sure Stephen Webb, in his work in prisons, has heard and worried over. Every time I come away from the Alpha Course (an introduction to Christianity) sessions that I help with, or the book and writing group I staff, or the life-skills course I participate in, I am humbled by the hopes of the men, their realistic self-appraisals, and their sense of powerlessness. The voice I am sure that they want to hear speaking for them asserts: “You are a human being.” Christians or no, they ask for respect.

I remind myself often: the men are felons, they have hurt people, themselves in particular. I also see a self-selecting population. Those who come to the activities with which I am involved can lose the privilege if they “get a ticket” falling afoul of the authorities. On reflection, that leads to further unease about the majority of inmates that simply wait out their “bid.” I will mention the overriding numbers of men of color in the penal system only once. Stephen Webb does not point to race in National Revival, but the evidence of discrimination is all too clear and yet another indictment of complacency – the “lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key.”

Surely Stephen Webb will respond that he pleads for understanding and reaction in way that I have suggested. To do justice by (and through) the prison system involves responsiveness to all that I have mentioned. Amen. Let this herald national revival of Christianity. But I don’t hear a call for political action, for social justice that looks at inequality of wealth, or for the personal burden that we face at our own distance from those whom we imprison. What discomfort would I feel as a Christian, if the Breath of the Spirit came from the mouth of a convict? Where, I ask myself, would I ever meet an offender or an ex-offender except through the volunteer work that I do? Is Christian life in this country so exclusive for so many of us? One final thought: when I mention to acquaintances that I am a prison volunteer, many express surprise, and wonder about the strangeness of what I face. But frankly, my experience has been remarkably familiar, human, and if I dare say it, Christ-like. We should not raise eyebrows over the intelligence, the hopes, the anxieties, and the deep desire for renewal that so many men behind bars express. As Stephen Webb argues, it is not odd to share in the bondage that is our earthly state.

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Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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