My Pilgrimage to Prison

Going to maximum security prison on a regular basis has a way of keeping one grounded. Social insulation is so easy to accumulate. Whether I intentionally keep myself in middle class, educated, Christian enclaves or society pushes me in that direction, I sometimes find myself spiritually suffocating. I so easily fall out of touch with the people and places where Christ draws near. That is why going to prison is something of a spiritual pilgrimage for me.

The word “prison” or “prisoner” is mentioned more than 100 times in the Bible. From Joseph to Paul there are quite a number of Biblical figures who spent time in prison. The writer of Hebrews suggests that we remember those in prison as if we ourselves were in prison (Hebrews 13:3). Psalm 79:11 says, “Let the groans of the prisoners come before you; according to your great power preserve those doomed to die.”

The prisoner is on God’s heart.

In Matthew 25 Jesus told his disciples that when they visited those in prison they were visiting him. In the eight or so years I have been doing this I see many of the same men every time I come; some of them will likely never see anything but Colombia Correctional Institution for decades. I sometimes picture encountering one of those guys at the end of this age. I imagine him approaching me. As he does, he reaches his hand around to the back of his head and pulls off a mask. It is then that I realize I have been encountering Christ without knowing it.

The recent spate of botched executions has once more brought our corrections system into the limelight. A simple look at the statistics suggests that Blacks, Hispanics, those living in poverty and those suffering mental illness are wildly disproportionate in our corrections facilities. It is not because the white, the rich and those without mental illness don’t commit crimes. Criminal behavior does not discriminate. Systems do. It is systems created by humans which so often bend helpfully toward some people and unhelpfully away from others. If I were a conspiracy theorist I might believe there is some mastermind attempting to imprison or execute all the non-white, the low income and the mentally ill. But believing in a conspiracy theory would let me off the hook.

Those of us who identify as Christians, those touched by the amazing grace of God, must be the most grieved by the prison mill that exists among us. We should be the loudest advocates for those in jail – their most ardent supporters. Repentance is the front door to God’s kingdom, so those who enter must be acutely aware of our own criminality. How many of us have made mistakes that could have included jail time or fines if we had been caught. Most of us are guilty people who roam free. If some of us had been in the wrong place at the wrong time (and perhaps of the “wrong” economic class or “wrong” ethnicity), we may have been “the visited” rather than the visitor. Certainly by Christ’s standards my hatred alone would have me doing time as a murderer (Matthew 5:21-22).

Those of us so acquainted with grace must believe in the reality of redemption; we believe all of us have fallen short and that none of us is beyond the possibility of restoration. Those rescued from the death penalty should hate it most. Those intimate with the Only Righteous Judge must be most offended by unjust systems.

As an act of worship – visit those in prison, speak up against the death penalty, and advocate for prison reform. Those who have tasted grace must author a new chapter of grace in our corrections systems.

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May I ask what you do in the prison? I have worked with the Shakespeare programs in three different prisons, especially at the Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana.

In our visits we conduct 2 brief services. We try to remind inmates that there is a church in Madison that remembers them, we pray, sing, read scripture, have a testimony and share a brief message. Maximum security rules are pretty strict so there is relatively little interaction allowed. Still, we find the men courteous and grateful for our visit.

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