Sunday, October 07, 2018


Sunday Reflection: Just visiting

Matthew 25:45-46 has Jesus saying this, as part of a longer parable: "They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’"

I'm not very good at following this clear directive. I rarely feed the hungry, or clothe those in need, or help a stranger, or heal the sick. I could do more.

Sometimes, though, I do visit those in prison. I have to steel myself for it, each time, because it plunges me into the darkness of what much of my work is really about. I get letters all the time from people in prison, who want me to help them. They include all kinds of things: pictures, essays, court papers, transcripts, carefully hand-written letters that tell their story in painstaking detail. And I have come to know many people who were in prison, and have come out to do good and great things. I hear a lot about prison.

When I get there, I am always struck by the dehumanizing desolation of these places. The one pictured above--Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution in Minnesota--is actually one of the more appealing facilities. Our prisons, predictably, are low-bid utilitarian shells, striving for nothing more than the containment of people. It's as if you took all the worst elements of a 1970's-era suburban middle school and used that as the theme for your architectural project.

It doesn't have to be that way, of course. My mentor at Yale Law, Prof. Daniel Freed, co-taught a class with the architect Phillip Johnson. One law student and one architecture student formed teams that were tasked with designing prisons that were cheap but innovative. I would love to see the designs they created.

The process of getting into prison is pretty much a series of waiting rooms. First there is the spare outer lobby, where your forms are checked. Then you go through metal detectors to an inner lobby and wait. Then you are taken to a checkpoint. Then you walk to the room where you will meet with a person who desperately wants to be heard. Then you wait in that room. Sometimes it is a bare cell. Other times it is an empty visiting room, often with a corner featuring a few toys and poorly-drawn murals of Knock-Off Elmo.  

It is the walk that is the most interesting part. I try to see everything I can: people in the yard, a classroom, the guns on the wall in the control booth, the hard plastic chairs beneath a television, the worn path in the dirt. It is a haiku; there is so little to see sometimes that each thing pops out with significance. 

And then I meet the prisoner. Sometimes a client, sometimes not. Sometimes just someone who wrote me a letter. But always, always, always, they are the most interesting person I see that day. I listen, mostly. I tell a story. I give some advice, or explain something.

And then I walk back, through that haiku of a place.

The dirt is worn here.
A path towards that tall gate;
Ten thousand footprints.

There is this moment I experience each time, too, when I get back to my car. It's this moment of profound sadness. How could I not bear that with me? It's not a sadness that comes and goes. It fades slowly, with a half-life, lingering as I force myself to merge back into the world I inhabit, where a path in the dirt does not deserve a look.  

I suppose it is good and human, that sadness. It means I am alive. It means that in some small and inadequate way, I am glimpsing what it means to follow Christ if only for a moment. That path, it seems, does not lead to glory and riches. But He never promised that, did he?

This is one of your best posts, in my humble opinion. Do you think our criminal justice system has improved during the last two decades?

My initial thoughts went to the utilitarianism of Denmark (.82 on the criminal justice rule of law index), but how can we in the U.S. change our system to bridge the gap (from our .65)?
There is a thousand-page answer to that question! But the answer is, in short, we need to focus less on retribution and more on solving problems.
"Adequate and effective release preparation programming", yes. Prison reform also. The basic answers are in place to reform the system, but your answer to the broad question is more social based prior to criminal offenses. I agree, and did look up Marian Wright Edelman for further insight in CPS.
This is beautifully expressed . . . thank you.
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