A spiritual vision for prison reform

A Christian Science perspective.

I remember thinking, after visiting with a man convicted of murder, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” That may sound unusual, but I’ve learned, in talking with men and women in prison over the years, that beneath the sometimes rough exterior are people who have made mistakes and would dearly like to reconnect with their better selves.

In the United States we have done a poor job of rehabilitating those we send to prison – with the unfortunate result that the vast majority become repeat offenders. A commentary by Michael Shank, published in the Monitor, stated that to care for 2.3 million inmates, the US spends $80 billion annually on its correctional system – or $35,000 per inmate. Yet some of the best work done to rehabilitate individuals in prison is by volunteers from the religious community. To me, this serves as a stark lesson: It’s not about how much money is spent; rather it’s about the vision that supports rehabilitation.

For too long the main motive for putting individuals in jail has been to protect society from bad people, with little being done to help the prisoners improve their mental models. Prison overcrowding in some states has led to the court-ordered release of thousands back into society – many “educated” in crime by other prisoners and likely to return to the life that got them into trouble.

There are, however, positive examples that show the value of having spiritual vision in working with prisoners. A documentary produced by Odyssey Networks, titled “Serving Life,” profiled men serving life sentences without parole who are caring for fellow patients diagnosed as terminally ill with AIDS. One of the inmates involved with the program said, “Hospice is referred to as a process of helping one die with dignity, but more than that, I feel it’s helping one live our life with love.” 

This is one of the ways people are providing new models for prisoners, but a broader change in public thought is needed to more effectively reduce crime. In thinking about this, I have found helpful Mary Baker Eddy’s conviction that in our transactions with others, “God requires wisdom, economy, and brotherly love....” (“Manual of The Mother Church,” p. 77). To enable our society to take a wiser, more economical, and compassionate approach, prayer that is based on loving our prisoner-neighbors as ourselves will provide hope and help to reduce public fear. God’s love doesn’t stop outside the prison door, and our conviction that all truly do love good and cannot desire evil will support uplifting and productive activities.

When I sit with a group of prisoners and begin to discuss what it means for them to understand themselves as children of God, tears begin to flow, hearts soften, and the sincere hunger to be better is quite evident. Using this same spiritual vision that everyone is the precious child of a good God who is Love, Christian Scientists have done amazing work over the past century in prisons and jails in this country. Opening inmates’ eyes to their true deeper nature as the “image and likeness of God” can set them on a new path. The longing to know themselves this way is the effect of divine Love awakening them to their true nature.

A passage in the Bible is descriptive of this experience, “If there be a messenger with him, an interpreter, one among a thousand, to shew unto man his uprightness: Then he is gracious unto him, and saith, Deliver him from going down to the pit: I have found a ransom. His flesh shall be fresher than a child’s: he shall return to the days of his youth” (Job 33:23–25).

People can begin to turn their lives around if they are helped to gain the true vision of themselves, which we all earnestly desire to live. The book of Colossians talks of the need to “put off the old man with his deeds; And ... put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (3:9, 10). A key and essential approach in effective prison reform is to help inmates recognize and put on their new, better identity as God’s precious children.

From the Christian Science Sentinel.

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