The summer I graduated high school my church elders enlisted us to witness to prisoners in the county jail. They expected us to share the good news as a rite of passage into our adult responsibilities.
My pastor dropped me off at Hays County Jail on a hundred and seven-degree August day. The heat melted my polyester shirt to my shoulders. I carried a Bible covered in a leather zipper case decorated with a hand-etched dove. The guards ushered me to a cramped cell in a claustrophobic hallway to testify to a black prisoner who never looked up from his hands.
I’d never seen a jail cell before, even in the movies they played in my classes to scare students away from sex, drugs, drunk-driving and masturbation. It was barely bigger than a walk-in closet, with two bunk beds and mattresses thinner than a paperback best seller, windows that hadn’t been cleaned since Bill Haley and the Comets hit the charts, and a seatless, stainless-steel toilet.
The toilet shocked me most, except for the smell.
I almost fled from the smell of ammonia and sweat emanating from that cell. I consciously kept my hands at my waist so that I didn’t cover my nose and mouth.
“Do you know Jesus?”
He mumbled yes. He stared at his palms, locked together by interlaced fingers. I didn’t believe him. How could a Christian end up in jail, smelling as bad as this man?
I took him through the Roman Road:1 we all have sinned and the consequences are death but God saved us with the death of Jesus and all we have to do is confess our faith and we will find eternal life. I showed him the verses in the Bible as I spoke (rubbing my nose against my shoulder and blinking my eyes to shake out the tears from the odor).
The prisoner literally trembled from the power of the Word.
To no avail. All he said was, “Thank you, sir.” Sir. His term for a seventeen-year-old, not-yet-in-college student, twenty or more years his junior. My duty done, desperate to leave, I pulled a handful of Jack Chick comics2 from my Bible cover and dropped them through his cell bars. I rushed outside to my pastor, who waited with his engine running to power his air conditioning.
I laid out the facts: The prisoner was hard-core, liquor still on his breath. But I planted the seed of faith and, God willing, it would bloom into salvation. My pastor assured me that prison witness was a tough sell, but with time I’d be leading those prisoners to Jesus like cattle on a trail ride.
The Revised Version
Forty-five years later I see the encounter differently. My prisoner suffered through withdrawal, possibly even DTs. That ammonia smell was alcohol permeating his pores. He may have suffered from early liver failure. My witness only tortured him more.
I would have tuned me out if I were him. One more white boy yammering away about white Jesus. But he couldn’t send me away. He couldn’t even ask me to leave. He was my prisoner as well as the county’s. I simply didn’t realize it at the time.
I now recognize that jail isn’t about crime. Prisoners are symbols, they serve to justify our memes, our messages, our visions of society. I didn’t care about that soul or his suffering. I wanted to prove myself to the elders of the church.
To notch a win for Jesus.
Please don’t think I believe prison has no role in society, or that incarceration is, in and of itself, bad. But our society lost sight of their purpose. This country created the modern penitentiary system to encourage inmates to learn a trade and reflect on their mistakes.3
We owe the notion of penitentiaries to the Quakers, a deeply spiritual community whose members remain close to their roots. Quakers practice quiet and self-reflection. At their meetings, members sit in silence and prayer, only speaking when they feel moved by the spirit.
I worked closely with the Quaker community in the eighties during the height of the nuclear freeze movement. At a time when the evangelical churches that raised me were filling their services with the joyful noise (emphasis on the noise) of electric guitars, drums and miked choral groups, I found myself coming closer to God at Quaker assemblies.
Having experienced the value of quiet and personal reflection, I understand their thinking behind the penitentiary. A prisoner given the opportunity to sit alone in his cell and meditate on the actions that brought him to this point (perhaps having worked in the kitchen or garden during the day) might find the resources to turn his life around. By freeing his mind, he frees himself of the patterns that drove him to crime.
No such opportunity exists in American jails. From the moment of arrest, our jails rob inmates of physical and personal freedom.4 They perpetuate the suppression of the poor and racial minorities5 and often provide cheap labor to corporations looking to undercut working wages.6
When we discuss the slavery of the working poor we often think of the term as a metaphor. Depressed wages, substandard benefits and poor working conditions with little chance of advancement create a prison from which the working poor aren’t unlikely to earn their release.
Few of us realize many prisoners are literally working slaves, and the trend is likely to continue.
Officially, the United States doesn’t have prisons. We provide those convicted of crimes with educational and correctional facilities. This makes prisoners into wards of a fatherly, caring state with a legal responsibility to prepare prisoners for re-entry into society. Instead, more and more prisons are being created to house a growing population that competes directly with unskilled labor to depress wages even further.
Our social experiments at reform, our Christian ministry to prisoners operate on the assumption that prisoners earned their sentence. I made the same assumption about the prisoner I visited, a prisoner whom it might be argued Jesus put into my care. And yet more than half of local prisoners are innocent and waiting trial, more than two-thirds of state and federal inmates were convicted for minor drug offenses and more than one in twenty suffers mental illness.7
Even more alarming, the number of inmates has increased from 300,000 in the seventies to two million at the end of the millennium in spite of a corresponding decrease in crime. It should come as little surprise that the growing prison population feeds the growing demand for cheap labor. The Progressive Labor Party called the situation, “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.”8
Ironically, the use of prison labor was introduced after the Civil War to replace the labor supply lost when the nation abolished slavery. Like slaves, prisoner work is unpaid. Prisoners work for room and board, which is paid for by their labor. In some prisons prisoners earn special favors, but in almost every case prisoners are compelled to undertake “voluntary” labor if only because prisons charge them for “luxury” items such as toothpaste and toilet paper. In states where inmates can volunteer for skilled positions, their pay is as little as $1.50 an hour.
Little has changed about prison labor since this picture of Mississipi inmates was published in the New York Times in 1911.
Since the Civil War the prison labor industry has grown to 37 states and federal prisons. Prison labor slashes operating costs and boosts profits for high-profile businesses, including Exxon, Pfizer, the Koch brothers, Caterpillar and John Deere, as well as retail and fast food chains such as K-Mart and McDonalds. Surprisingly, businesses who build their brand around social consciousness rely on prison labor too, including Whole Foods (now Amazon) and Starbucks.9
This narrative is lost in the media depictions of prisons as breeding grounds for Islamic fundamentalism and Neo-Nazi hate groups. In the media narrative, prison hardens prisoners, making them unable to adapt to life after their release. We may need to embrace the notion that prisoners are too valuable as commodities to release them back into society where they compete for the jobs of “good citizens.”
We decry the racial polarization of prisoners, but forget the real role the Nation of Islam and the Aryan brotherhood serve. They provide safe haven for inmates, provide them with a brotherhood, a sense of identity and even protect them from harm. (Or, if they can’t protect them, they punish the prisoners who wrong them in a way the system never will.)
In short, the Nation of Islam and Aryan brotherhood assume a responsibility to prisoners that we’ve abdicated. Sadly, the same associations that provide the safety we abdicate, make it even more difficult for prisoners to fit into society upon their return.
Are there well-meaning reformers looking to better the lives of prisoners? I have no doubt that there are, but their voices are lost in a society determined not to care. Once we turn the key, we no longer need to concern ourselves with prisoners’ welfare.
When I brought the Good News of Jesus to a black man behind bars, sweating through withdrawal, my sense of witness was little different than an Amway distributor’s description of his business at a rally my wife forced me to attend: Draw enough circles (witness to enough lost souls) and sooner or later someone will jump on board.
He was just another circle to draw on my climb up the spiritual ladder. I may as well have turned the key to his cell when I left. And ordinary Americans may not deliver prisoners to labor camps like slave traders of the eighteenth century. But we turn them over to the slave traders who do—depressing our own wages, benefits and working conditions in the process.
When faced with a moral dilemma, evangelicals ask what would Jesus do?
Jesus told his followers God sent him to the world to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, a message that inspired Carl Daw to pen the hymn “Till All the Jails Are Empty.”10 Until that day Jesus would have bathed, clothed, and fed each one. Provided another blanket. Stayed until the tremors faded. Squeeze their hands. Jesus was the good news, not any words he might have shared.
Everyone deserves this little bit of dignity and respect.
© 2017, Phillip T. Stephens