You Were in Prison…

by William C. Placher

William C. Placher is professor of philosophy and religion at Wabash College. He spent 1994 at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 26-October 3, 2001, pp. 18-22. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at . This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Christians ought to be able to persuade non-Christians that the present prison system is not working and that, even on purely pragmatic grounds, its brutality and lack of counseling and support programs do more harm than good.

One can read a good many books about the moral and political implications of Christian faith without finding much discussion of prisons. Even when Americans worry (as we should) about capital punishment, those worries rarely spread to concern about the penal system in general.

Jails and prisons are an ever more important topic in American society; we live in a country gone mad on sending people to prison. Consider some statistics. From the early 20th century until the mid-1970s, the United States imprisoned about 110 people for every 100,000 of the population. The figure doubled in the late 1970s and ‘80s and doubled again in the ‘90s, so that today 445 out of every 100,000 Americans are in prison.

According to Eric Schlosser ("The Prison Industrial Complex," Atlantic Monthly, December 1998), other countries come nowhere close to such figures: compared to that 445 are 36 per 100,000 in Japan, from 50 to 120 in the countries of Western Europe, 229 in the famous "police state" of Singapore, and 368 in South Africa before the change to majority rule.

California alone, reports Schlosser, has "more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined." The Gulag or the Nazi concentration camps, with their political prisoners or whole races imprisoned, incarcerated larger percentages of their total populations, but, counting only criminals in the usual sense of the word, the United States has a larger portion of its population in prison or jail now than any society in history.

Consideration of most social issues in the U.S., if we are honest, leads us sooner rather than later to the prisons. Take race, for example: one in every three young African-American men in the U.S. is either in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or under pretrial release; in many cities the figure is more than half. Nationwide, more black men are in jail or prison than in college -- in California, four times as many. Black males in the U.S. are incarcerated at four times the rate of black males in South Africa.

Prison conditions are often dreadful. In my own state of Indiana, young men under 21 -- some guilty of violent crimes, some not -- can be assigned to a facility where most of them sleep in large dormitories which are essentially unpatrolled at night. Some inmates, unable to defend themselves against sexual predators, quickly become flamboyantly effeminate, concluding that having forced sex is better than being beaten. The administrators of the facility can hardly claim to be unaware of what is happening. Indeed, the threat of rape has unofficially become part of the deterrent policy of American prisons. In a widely publicized program called "Scared Straight," teenage boys identified as potential troublemakers are taken to prisons where inmates harangue them about how eagerly they will welcome such good-looking boys as sexual victims.

Some states have reinstituted chain gangs. New laws keep lowering the age at which capital punishment is permitted. Yet conservative American rhetoric continually talks about how "soft" we are on our prisoners and denounces the supposed "luxury" of the prison system. Running for president in 1996, Bob Dole kept calling the American criminal justice system a "liberal-leaning laboratory of leniency."

When groups concerned about criminal justice have carefully investigated some of the cases of prisoners on Illinois’ death row, over half of those reviewed have been proven innocent of the crimes of which they have been convicted. Even a cynic might expect that death-penalty cases would have been reviewed in the first place more carefully than those that merely involved prison sentences, so one suspects that many prisoners not on death row are innocent too.

Social programs to keep young people out of trouble, even if they have only mixed success, come far cheaper than paying for the prisons, but prisons are far more politically popular. Opening high school gyms for "midnight basketball," for instance, demonstrably lowers crime in the surrounding neighborhoods, but has often been dismissed with ridicule in political debates, even as we keep building more prisons.

Even the American political left has been scared off the prison issue. Appearing to be "soft on crime" seems such a horrible risk that no one wants to chance it. Candidates remember the fate of Michael Dukakis, who, running for president, faced ads about Willie Horton, an African-American who had committed a murder while in a Massachusetts furlough program when Dukakis was governor. No other politician wants to be identified as on the side of the criminals-perhaps, if truth were told, least of all on the side of African-American criminals. So Bill Clinton paused in his first presidential campaign to approve the execution of a man so severely retarded that he did not understand that he was going to die (he asked that the pie from his last meal be saved so he could eat it later). And the number of people whose killing he had approved sometimes seemed George W Bush’s principal qualification for high office.

The U.S. certainly has a serious problem with violent crime, but it is not clear that putting more people in prison reduces crime rates. From 1985 to 1995, American rates of imprisonment and crime rates both dramatically increased. Since 1995, crime rates have substantially declined in some states, but there is no particular correlation between the severity of sentencing and the decline of crime. Admittedly, different sets of statistics sometimes seem to point toward different implications, but a consensus of studies supports the following conclusions:

A high probability of arrest, followed fairly promptly by time in jail or prison, has a serious deterrent effect.

Particularly when the probability of arrest is relatively low, increases in the length of sentence soon cease to have much effect. Someone who thinks it unlikely he or she will be caught will not be more deterred by the threat of 30 years in prison than 20. To a teenager, two years seems a lifetime; the threat of five years will not much increase deterrence.

Rehabilitation programs have very mixed success, but a prison system that cuts inmates off from family and society, does not offer substance-abuse treatment or any educational opportunities, and provides no support services after release makes it very likely that released inmates will soon commit further crimes. People who come out of prison with untreated drug habits and no marketable skills, unsurprisingly, tend to go back to crime rather quickly.

Prison brutality that forces prisoners to be constantly ready to defend themselves and challenges male prisoners’ masculinity makes additional crime even more likely after they are released.

Nevertheless, while recent years have seen some improvement in police work (with a greater chance that criminals will be arrested), American public policy generally involves dramatic cutbacks in services available to prisoners, coupled with increased expenditures on new prisons to accommodate those sentenced to longer terms. The American criminal justice system has simply become irrational. What most political figures say about "luxurious" prisons bears little relation to their actual brutality. Our prisons and by extension we as a society are responsible for great human suffering without for the most part accomplishing any useful social goals (like lowering crime). With the exception of some evangelical groups, ministry to prisons and prisoners is not a part of the life of most congregations, and poll data indicate that self-identified Christians are more inclined than the national average to favor capital punishment and more severe sentencing.

Talk about prisoners -- and fairly radical talk at that -- has, however, a significant place in the New Testament. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ programmatic declaration of the purpose of his ministry quotes Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me to

bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

(Luke 4:18-19 and parallels)

"Release the captives" and "let the oppressed go free" are prominent here. The reference to "the year of the Lord’s favor" evokes the Jubilee year, which was supposed to occur every 50 years in ancient Israel, in which prisoners and slaves would simply be freed (Lev. 25:10, 41). It is not clear whether the Israelites ever put this idea into practice, but even its presence in theory testifies to a conviction that mercy can displace retribution.

In Matthew, Jesus imagines the returning Son of Man distinguishing the righteous from the accursed in that the righteous had fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited prisoners (Matt. 25:35-36). Until quite recently, visiting prisoners was an important part of Christian life. Many of the dramatic scenes of early Christian faith take place in prison cells, and the accounts of people’s time with condemned prisoners are among the most moving passages in the writings. Some prison visits by pious Christians were no doubt condescending or manipulative, but at least people who regularly visited prisoners knew what the inside of the prison looked like. They would not in general denounce its luxury, and they might (and sometimes did) work to improve prison conditions. Practices like visiting prisoners grew out of the core of Christian faith. After all, Jesus was a crucified criminal. He was not merely punished, one important strand of Christian theology has maintained -- he was guilty, for he had taken on our guilt. "For our sake," Paul wrote, God made Christ "to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).

Luther insisted that this passage means what it says. Christ "says to me," he wrote, "‘You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute. You have not sinned, but I have. . . . All your sins are to rest on Me and not on you."’ The law thus looks at Christ and declares, "‘I find him a sinner, who takes upon Himself the sins of all men. I do not see any other sins than those in Him. Therefore let Him die on the cross.’ And so it attacks Him and kills Him. By this deed the whole world is purged."

Christ takes on our sin, and frees us from it. Some of us may have a more immediate need of rehabilitation, or more need to be prevented from doing harm to others in the short run, but according to Christian faith it makes no sense to think of "distinguishing the innocent from the guilty." Apart from Christ, we are all guilty. In Christ, we can all be found innocent. We may need to be helped, both by being protected from doing further wrong and by being helped to be better, but there is no reason to punish anyone. As the contemporary theologian John Milbank has written,

The trial and punishment of Jesus itself condemns in some measure, all other trials and punishment, and all forms of alien discipline. . . The only finally tolerable, and non-sinful punishment, for Christians, must be the self-punishment inherent in sin. When a person commits an evil act, he cuts himself off from social peace, and this nearly always means that he is visited with social anger. But the aim should be to reduce this anger to a calm fury against the sin, and to offer the sinner nothing but goodwill, so bringing him to the point of realizing that his isolation is self-imposed. . . . The Church, while recognizing the tragic necessity of "alien," external punishment, should also seek to be an asylum, a house of refuge from its operations, a social space where a different, forgiving and restitutionary practice is pursued. This practice should also be "atoning," in that we acknowledge that an individual’s sin is never his alone, that its endurance harms us all, and therefore its cancellation is also the responsibility of all.

In short, we face pragmatic questions of how to protect potential victims and rehabilitate criminals to lead better lives, but Christians can think about such questions free of the need to distinguish innocent and guilty, and free of the need for punishment.

What would that mean in practice? Charles Colson, a conservative Republican who first got interested in prisons when he was sentenced to one for his part in the Watergate scandal, has founded the Prison Fellowship and the Justice Fellowship to try to help American prisoners. His work offers a particularly useful example, since Colson is such a tough-minded conservative that his views cannot be dismissed as typical liberal softness on crime. In the Prison Fellowship, Christians work with prisoners in seminars and Bible studies and in general just visit prisoners and serve as their pen pals. They arrange for community service for furloughed prisoners, and they pair released prisoners with members of Christian congregations who will help them in their efforts to readjust to life "outside." Prisoners are treated not as outsiders, but as potential and then actual members of Christian communities. Welcoming prisoners into such communities even while they are imprisoned and promising them a greater degree of fellowship after their release are crucial to the program’s success. So here is a place for individuals or congregations to begin: visit prisoners; establish human contact; offer to help them get settled when they are released; invite them to join a Christian congregation.

The influential contemporary Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, though he has not talked much about prisons, argues in general for such a model of Christian action: act through local congregations, one by one; don’t get involved as Christians in politics to try to change governmental policies. Political involvement, he says, compromises Christian witness, since in politics we inevitably make regrettable compromises.

In Colson’s programs, however, the work of the Justice Fellowship supplements that of the Prison Fellowship, campaigning for alternative forms of punishment for nonviolent offenders, for an end to the worst abuses within the prison system, and so on. How, Colson asks, can one visit prisoners, connecting with them as Christian brothers and sisters, and hear their stories of brutality or sexual abuse within their prisons without doing something by way of publicity or political lobbying to improve their condition? How could prisoners accept as sincere invitations to join Christian communities whose members were not trying, through political activity, to reduce brutality and injustice? It is hard to believe someone who says, "I really care about you, but I’m not going to vote against the sheriff who lines his pocket by cutting back on your food. I don’t want to corrupt myself by political participation."

If Christians were to start working with prisoners in significant numbers, it might be the beginning of radical changes in our criminal justice system. Or it might lead to rather modest decreases in brutality and improvements in rehabilitation. I see no need to try to predict the end before we begin. As Will Campbell and James Holloway have written,

We constantly discover men and women who have been in various types of prisons for decades without one single visitor having signed their record card. We have suggested on other occasions that each institutional church adopt three prisoners purely and simply for purposes of visitation -- so that at least once a week every man and woman and child behind bars could have one human being with whom he could have one human being with whom he could have community, to whom the prisoner could tell his story. And the visitor his. We have advocated that because we are convinced that this elementary act of charity alone would provide all the prison reform that society could tolerate.

To be sure, Christians cannot expect that our non-Christian neighbors will share our view that we are all sinners just like the inmates of the local jail, and that their sin, like ours, has been taken on by Christ. Christians have theological reasons for welcoming prisoners into their congregations and families -- reasons which others in our society do not share and non-Christians may not want to emulate our practices. But we ought to be able to persuade non-Christians too that the present prison system is not working and that, even on purely pragmatic grounds, its brutality and lack of counseling and support programs do more harm than good. We should at least remind our neighbors of what prisons are like -- something we will know if we have been visiting prisoners. If we do not engage in such "political" activity, prisoners will regard our overtures with justified suspicion. Moreover, if we are visiting prisons, our hearts will compel us to try to change them. How radically? We can find out only if we begin.