Why Should We Care?

November 28th, 2011 by admin

Rev. Barbara Brecht

November 14, 2010

Scripture: Luke 21: 5-19

In this passage from Luke that we heard this morning, Jesus is standing in the temple in Jerusalem, foretelling its destruction.   He predicts that some disciples will be given to the synagogues and prisons and be unjustly accused. Jesus, himself, will soon be turned over to the authorities and unjustly accused.  The criminal justice system probably has not changed that much in 2,000 years.  Those who threaten and want to disrupt the social or economic order are removed from the general population and hidden away in prison.  

Jesus talks about prisons at other times in his ministry, doesn’t he?  He tells his disciples that when you visit someone in prison, you are visiting Jesus.  Why does Jesus emphasize visiting people in prison? It’s easy to understand Jesus’s instructions about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking in the homeless.  But why visiting people in prison? It’s so difficult to visit someone in prison. May I tell you about some of the difficulties?

Prisons are traditionally built in remote places not served by public transportation or easy to get to.  It’s very difficult to make arrangements with someone you would like to visit.  To communicate with a person in prison, that person has to call you, the call has to be collect and the rates are much higher than normal rates, placing a very real economic burden on poor families who want to be in touch with loved ones.  In some states you have to be on a list of approved “call receivers” and who knows who is looking at that list. Additionally, there are few phones available in prisons.  When you plan a visit, you don’t know if the prison is going to be in “lock-down” and receive no visitors.  There are rules about what you can wear as a visitor—especially for women, these rules can be humiliating.  For example, at Attica prison in New York State, when our prison ministry went in to worship with the men, any woman with an underwire bra had to remove the bra before going in.  I guess because the metal could be used to make a weapon.  Of course, many more rules apply to what you can bring and how long you can stay. 

In New York State where I was involved in the system, I could not correspond or be on an approved call list with any incarcerated person in any prison in the state and still visit a prison with my church group for a worship service.  Why was this rule created?  Who knows?  One person involved in the admissions procedure told me that “little old church ladies” could be manipulated by men in prison to fall in love with them through letter writing. Then the men would take advantage of them when they were released from prison.  So to prevent this sad scene, “little old church ladies” could not write to any person in prison and still worship with their church group.

Another time our prison ministry group drove five hours to a prison, only to be told that there were no papers at the front desk giving us permission to hold a worship service.  Why bother at all?

 Very few people know these rules or are aware of what organization makes these rules about prison visitation.  The Department of Corrections is a system unto itself.  There is virtually no oversight from elected officials. People are appointed to the parole boards as well as positions of power in the correctional system.  There is a total lack of transparency and accountability. A few years ago, a woman came to us in tears.  After months of not hearing from her incarcerated son, this mother was finally told he had died months ago and his body was buried in a prison grave.  They could not tell her where, but if she wanted the body she would have to pay thousands of dollars to have it dug up and transported to another site.  The prison officials claimed that they had sent her several letters informing her of his death but the letters had been returned “addressee unknown.” The story has a bitter-sweet ending: our church was able to interest some New York City media in her story and the woman could prove that she had never changed her address.  The prison officials were made to be accountable—apologized and returned the body to her at no charge.  We held a lovely memorial service at the church.  But how many people have the will, fortitude, and resources to penetrate this system?  Sunlight is the best disinfectant but the walls are practically impenetrable.  And how many people really care?  Dr. King writes in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”  Any system that is clothed in secrecy and mystery and is not accountable to the people it serves is bound to become corrupt.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit people in prison.

What part does society play in the social justice system?  William Sloan Coffin writes that “Ninety-eight percent of people in prison in the United States lived in poverty most of their lives.”  Are poor people more likely to be criminals?  Dr. Coffin goes on:  “We say we’re tough on crime; we’re only tough on criminals.  Were we tough on crime we’d put the money up front, in prevention, in building communities, not more prisons.  Some of us are guilty but all of us are responsible.  We stress the guilty to exonerate the others also responsible for a soaring crime rate.”

Most of us have committed deeds we are not proud of.  Some of us go to prison for them.  A white boy’s prank (he’s just feeling his oats) is a black boy’s crime. I need not tell you that the population in prison is overwhelmingly comprised of racial and ethnic minorities.  Women in prison are often there because they have killed or attempted to kill their abusers.  A program in the maximum security prison in New York is geared for the women who are deaf—many more deaf women than in the normal population.  Why are they deaf?  Because they were knocked on the head so many times by violent people.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

During the last thirty years the prison population has sextupled.  Today one in one hundred adults in the country are behind bars.  By far the highest ratio of imprisoned people in any democracy. The population is disproportionately young, poor, and from ethnic and racial minorities. 

Prisons create profits for corporations and jobs for communities that have few jobs to offer otherwise.  Can you just imagine the profit for whichever company provides paper products for a state prison?  And who is giving out those contracts?  Few people know.  Of course in recent years the decision to turn the incarceration of people over to profit making corporations is mind-blowing.  Imagine having a daughter in a prison where her medical care is based on how little can be done for her so that stockholders can have a good return on their investment.  I know there is supposed to be strict oversight.  The New York Times uncovered horrendous medical care in facilities run by for-profit companies.

Jesus wants us to visit those in prison because of the inherent worth of humankind as created by God in God’s own image.  Our God is the God of everyone. We believe there is the possibility of repentance and salvation for each cherished individual.  Examples ranging from the prodigal son to the lost sheep abound in Jesus’s teachings. Each person is precious in God’s eyes.  Eddie Ellis, a former Black Panther and tireless advocate for those in prison, talks about the importance of language in referencing those in prison.  Never say prisoner, convict, inmate, ex-con or any generic word indicating a prison status.  These are people—people in prison.  Look at the prophets (different spelling) who have been in prison—Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, St. Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Angela Davis.  All people who wanted to disturb the status quo.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, his words were written on the other side of the note-pad on which the contents of food parcels had to be listed—in the first weeks of his imprisonment, the only writing material he had.  “Separation from people, from work, from the past, from the future, from marriage, from God, impatience, longing, boredom, sick—profoundly alone, suicide, not because of consciousness of guilt but because basically I am already dead.  Total. Overcoming in prayer.”  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

By visiting those in prison, we can be present with people in their extreme alienation.  We can become the incarnate presence of God.  Our presence—particularly our listening to their stories–enables the giving and receiving of forgiveness.  We are able to walk some of the diverse paths humans take in their walk toward and with God.  Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison. 

In this passage from Luke that we heard this morning, Jesus is standing in the temple in Jerusalem, foretelling its destruction. He predicts that some disciples will be given to the synagogues and prisons and be unjustly accused. Jesus, himself, will soon be turned over to the authorities and unjustly accused. The criminal justice system probably has not changed that much in 2,000 years. Those who threaten and want to disrupt the social or economic order are removed from the general population and hidden away in prison.

Jesus talks about prisons at other times in his ministry, doesn’t he? He tells his disciples that when you visit someone in prison, you are visiting Jesus. Why does Jesus emphasize visiting people in prison? It’s easy to understand Jesus’s instructions about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking in the homeless. But why visiting people in prison? It’s so difficult to visit someone in prison. May I tell you about some of the difficulties.

Prisons are traditionally built in remote places not served by public transportation nor easy to get to. It’s very difficult to make arrangements with someone you would like to visit. To communicate with a person in prison, that person has to call you, the call has to be collect and the rates are much higher than normal rates, placing a very real economic burden on poor families who want to be in touch with loved ones. In some states you have to be on a list of approved “call receivers” and who knows who is looking at that list. Additionally, there are few phones available in prisons. When you plan a visit, you don’t know if the prison is going to be in “lock-down” and receive no visitors. There are rules about what you can wear as a visitor—especially for women, these rules can be humiliating. For example, at Attica prison in New York State, when our prison ministry went in to worship with the men, any woman with an underwired bra had to remove the bra before going in. I guess because the metal could be used to make a weapon. Of course, many more rules apply to what you can bring and how long you can stay.

In New York State where I was involved in the system, I could not correspond or be on an approved call list with any incarcerated person in any prison in the state and still visit a prison with my church group for a worship service. Why was this rule created? Who knows? One person involved in the admissions procedure told me that “little old church ladies” could be manipulated by men in prison to fall in love with them through letter writing. Then the men would take advantage of them when they were released from prison. So to prevent this sad scene, “little old church ladies” could not write to any person in prison and still worship with their church group.

Another time our prison ministry group drove five hours to a prison, only to be told that there were no papers at the front desk giving us permission to hold a worship service. Why bother at all?

Very few people know these rules or are aware of what organization makes these rules about prison visitation. The Department of Corrections is a system unto itself. There is virtually no oversight from elected officials. People are appointed to the parole boards as well as positions of power in the correctional system. There is a total lack of transparency and accountability. A few years ago, a woman came to us in tears. After months of not hearing from her incarcerated son, this mother was finally told he had died months ago and his body was buried in a prison grave. They could not tell her where, but if she wanted the body she would have to pay thousands of dollars to have it dug up and transported to another site. The prison officials claimed that they had sent her several letters informing her of his death but the letters had been returned “addressee unknown.” The story has a bitter-sweet ending: our church was able to interest some New York City media in her story and the woman could prove that she had never changed her address. The prison officials were made to be accountable—apologized and returned the body to her at no charge. We held a lovely memorial service at the church. But how many people have the will, fortitude, and resources to penetrate this system? Sunlight is the best disinfectant but the walls are practically impenetrable. And how many people really care? Dr. King writes in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Any system that is clothed in secrecy and mystery and is not accountable to the people it serves is bound to become corrupt. Of course Jesus wants us to visit people in prison.

What part does society play in the social justice system? William Sloan Coffin writes that “Ninety-eight percent of people in prison in the United States lived in poverty most of their lives.” Are poor people more likely to be criminals? Dr. Coffin goes on: “We say we’re tough on crime; we’re only tough on criminals. Were we tough on crime we’d put the money up front, in prevention, in building communities, not more prisons. Some of us are guilty but all of us are responsible. We stress the guilty to exonerate the others also responsible for a soaring crime rate.”

Most of us have committed deeds we are not proud of. Some of us go to prison for them. A white boy’s prank (he’s just feeling his oats) is a black boy’s crime. I need not tell you that the population in prison is overwhelmingly comprised of racial and ethnic minorities. Women in prison are often there because they have killed or attempted to kill their abusers. A program in the maximum security prison in New York is geared for the women who are deaf—many more deaf women than in the normal population. Why are they deaf? Because they were knocked on the head so many times by violent people. Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

During the last thirty years the prison population has sextupled. Today one in one hundred adults in the country are behind bars. By far the highest ratio of imprisoned people in any democracy. The population is disproportionately young, poor, and from ethnic and racial minorities.

Prisons create profits for corporations and jobs for communities that have few jobs to offer otherwise. Can you just imagine the profit for whichever company provides paper products for a state prison? And who is giving out those contracts? Few people know. Of course in recent years the decision to turn the incarceration of people over to profit making corporations is mind-blowing. Imagine having a daughter in a prison where her medical care is based on how little can be done for her so that stockholders can have a good return on their investment. I know there is supposed to be strict oversight. The NEW YORK TIMES uncovered horrendous medical care in facilities run by for-profit companies.

Jesus wants us to visit those in prison because of the inherent worth of humankind as created by God in God’s own image. Our God is the God of everyone. We believe there is the possibility of repentance and salvation for each cherished individual. Examples ranging from the prodigal son to the lost sheep abound in Jesus’s teachings. Each person is precious in God’s eyes. Eddie Ellis, a former Black Panther and tireless advocate for those in prison, talks about the importance of language in referencing those in prison. Never say prisoner, convict, inmate, ex-con or any generic word indicating a prison status. These are people—people in prison. Look at the prophets (different spelling) who have been in prison—Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, St. Paul, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Angela Davis. All people who wanted to disturb the status quo. Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, his words were written on the other side of the note-pad on which the contents of food parcels had to be listed—in the first weeks of his imprisonment, the only writing material he had. “Separation from people, from work, from the past, from the future, from marriage, from God, impatience, longing, boredom, sick—profoundly alone, suicide, not because of consciousness of guilt but because basically I am already dead. Total. Overcoming in prayer.” Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.

By visiting those in prison, we can be present with people in their extreme alienation. We can become the incarnate presence of God. Our presence—particularly our listening to their stories–enables the giving and receiving of forgiveness. We are able to walk some of the diverse paths humans take in their walk toward and with God. Of course Jesus wants us to visit those in prison.