CORBIN — By John Burkhart
People, who have seriously violated society lose their right to live in it. A government has the obligation to protect its citizens from such criminals. Imprisonment is the usual format used for many generations.
Once “put away” by legal due process, criminals are no longer a part of a free society. If there is one thing a free citizenry will not tolerate is convicted criminals in their midst. Even those who have served their time (“ex-cons”) usually find a lifetime of rejection and condemnation.
The U.S. has the embarrassing distinction of being the No. 1 incarcerator in the world, with more than 2 million Americans in prison. This population living behind bars is invisible to the rest of society. They are truly out of sight and out of mind. If there is one thing that is of little or no concern for Americans it is our prisons and the daily experience of those held therein. The inmates getting their just desserts prevails in our minds.
This lack of interest breeds indifference and usually total ignorance of prison life. Having talked with, counseled, befriended and even employed ex-cons, their memories of prison life and experiences shared with me explain how nearly 50 percent repeat their crimes and time. Most identify no serious rehabilitating experience during or after incarceration. Permanently scarred as a social reject, they are stamped as incorrigible law-breakers and not to be trusted. Typically, the released ex-con experiences a life-sentence from society, forever being condemned. A popular pragmatic prison policy is the use of military confinement (a 5 foot by 10 foot tomb-like, concrete, gray-box designed for the most hardened and dangerous criminals) as a protective cell for inmates whom the prison population might deem worthy of receiving their personally imposed corporal pain or even death.
A recently released 12-year survivor of the “gray-box”, Brian Nelson, a man who committed murder at age 17, described his experience as not punishment but torture, being denied companionship and human dignity. In our State and our federal prisons there are 80,000 prisoners held in gray boxes; most of whom loose the will to live as well as the ability or interest to eat and sleep. Nelson attributes his survival to prayer and Bible reading.
Although our society has an intense and adamant stand for doling out punitive measures for all convicted criminals, and although our prisons are over-crowded causing prison guards and wardens to be overwrought, where is our faith in godly compassion, mercy, forgiveness and rehabilitation? Where is hope? Where is love?
“Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you yourself were suffering.” [Hebrews 13:3]
The Rev. John Burkhart Ph.D, is a retired Episcopal priest and professor of psychology
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