The riot at Attica State Prison in 1971 shocked the public into an awareness of the dire need for prison reform. Experts at that time stressed the importance of smaller prisons, better training for guards, more halfway houses and exposure of the community for those guilty of lesser offenses, and above all greater emphasis on unforced rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Today, there are 300,000 inmates in U.S. prisons, 100,000 more than a decade ago. But the increase in the number of cells available has not corresponded. That many prisons remain overcrowded -- seething caldrons of discontent -- was brutally underlined by the recent rampage in a New Mexico prison in which over thirty inmates lost their lives.
A letter to this paper in February 1979 stated, "Prison is a mirror of society. It serves as a forum where society hammers out a vision of self. Are we to be a forgiving or retributive people? Do we believe in redemption or do we believe once a sinner always a sinner? The voices we hear from behind bars are angry and troubled, often tormented. Almost without exception men and women are not finding there what will transform them.
These people will not benefit from our apathy or our pity, our indifference or our revulsion. They desperately need our love, our Christly concern. And that love can reach them, even if we never set foot inside those concrete and steel fortresses. The love that reflects the love of God, that recognizes man's inherent perfection and is universal, can penetrate the walls of the thickest solitary confinement cell, can break the densest crust of ignorance and despair, because, in the words of the Psalmist, "If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there." n1 God is there, the ever-present source of hope, sinlessness, and freedom, and not a single inmate's link with Him can ever be severed. That this link will come to light in inevitable, because the love of God is eternal and the evil that hides it is not.
n1 Psalms 139:8.
One of the banners flung outside the window of Attica State Prison by striking inmates was a quotation from Science and Health with Key to the Scripturesm by Mary Baker Eddy n2: "The sunlight glints from the church-dome, glances into the prison-cell, glides into the sick-chamber, brightens the flower , beautifies the landscape, blesses the earth." n3 Why those words? Might it not be because someone knew, however gropingly, that Love, like sunlight, was something his fellow prisoners were as emphatically entitled to as those in the outside world?
n2 Mary Baker Eddy is the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science.
n3 Science and Health,m p. 516.
If we sat down and wrote a letter to a prisoner, we'd surely have enough faith in the postal system to stick a stamp on the envelope and slip it in the mailbox. Shouldn't we have at least as much faith in the ability of God, divine Love, to communicate the saving message of the Christ? This message tells of the eternal sinlessness, safety, and freedom conferred on man through his sonship with God.
We may feel prayer is a cop-out, that if we really cared we'd do volunteer work at some institution, perhaps conduct religious services or give a writing course, and indeed this may be precisely what Love leads us to do. On the other hand, prayer may be the only effective way to reach those physically and mentally beyond our personal access, those too strictly confined or too scornful to accept human help, however well intentioned.
Mrs. Eddy points out in Science and Health,m "In divine Science, where prayers are mental, allm may avail themselves of God as 'a very present help in trouble.' Love is impartial and universal in its adaptation and betowals. It is the open fount which cries, 'Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.'" n4
n4 ibid.,m pp. 12-13.
Parched voices are calling, in ways we may not find pleasant to hear. The fountain is there. Who is willing to do the praying that shows it can never be sealed?