Here is another unsettling thought to consider: Virtually all of those two million convicts will eventually be released back into society. Since they are intentionally being treated harshly behind bars as part of this nations tough-on-crime policies, these ex-convicts are unlikely to be in a cooperative mood when they walk free. Is the producing of millions of hostile and unreformed outcasts really the wisest penological strategy for the greatest country on earth?
The New Testament suggests another option in an easily overlooked passage in the 16th chapter of the of the Acts of the Apostles, in which Paul and his companions have once again been thrown into the local jail: "About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God while the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly there was a violent earthquake and the prison's foundations were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open and everyone's chains came loose. When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, 'Don't harm yourself! We're all still here.' Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that same hour, the jailer took them and washed their wounds. Then immediately afterwards, he and all his family were baptized" (16:25-33).
The really surprising and significant twist to this episode flashes by so quickly that it is easily missed: Although "everyone's chains came loose" and "the prison doors flew open," none of the inmates fled. Clearly Paul's witness to his faith : "praying and singing hymns to God : had a powerful effect on those criminals, since they preferred to obey the law and remain in jail voluntarily instead of running away. In a spiritual sense, they had already been liberated.
This scriptural testimony to the possibility of rehabilitation behind bars can be found throughout the bible. According to the Book of Job, "if people are bound in chains, held fast by cords of affliction,...God makes them listen to correction. If they obey and serve God, they will spend the rest of their days in prosperity" (36:8-11). The Psalmist tells us of people who "sat in darkness and deepest gloom, prisoners suffering iron chains; then they cried to the Lord in their troubles and God rescued them from their distress...and broke their chains, for God breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through chains of iron" (107:10-16). And lest we forget, Christ himself spent his last hours on earth conversing with two men, both criminals, on the crosses next to his and managed to save at least one of them (Luke 23:32).
Of course we are likely to overlook this biblical teaching on reforming prisoners because we have been told so often that rehabilitation behind bars does not work. That bit of 'folk wisdom' is awfully convenient because it saves us from spending our precious tax dollars on a group of men and women we understandably dislike. The less we pay to reform them, the more we can keep locked up : a warehousing policy that has resulted in a prison population exceeding two million.
But is it really true that rehabilitation does not work? In many cases, it obviously is. Christ himself was able to save only one of the two criminals on the crosses next to his, after all. Yet he considered that 50% ratio worth his while, so perhaps we should rethink the issue.
In fact, Paul's experience in Acts 16 provides us with a valuable guide to how the rehabilitation of inmates might be made to work. The first and most important step is to address the spiritual and emotional needs of incarcerated men and women, as Paul did by praying and singing hymns. This is nowhere near as easy as it sounds, because it means recognizing and working with inmates' feelings of pain and anger over their ruined lives and dysfunctional backgrounds. In other words, one has to sharpen one's own spiritual eyesight to the point that one can see an individual convict as a person worth saving, and to convey that sense of individual caring to him or her.
The second lesson we can draw from Acts 16 is that real rehabilitation must offer genuine, practical help. Praying and singing hymns can only be a first step; then it becomes necessary to "break chains" and "open doors." Under the no-parole policies currently in place in virtually all states, prisoners feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have no incentive to participate in what few education and therapeutic programs remain. Some correctional staff members openly tell inmates that they need not attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, for instance, since nothing they do or do not do can shorten their sentences.
Finally, Paul's short stay in prison reaffirms that the ultimate responsibility for rehabilitation must be placed upon convicts themselves. What convinced the jailer to accept baptism was the clear evidence of the prisoners' conversion: they had not run away when they had the chance. So he too became a believer. Only when inmates demonstrate that their lives have been changed can they expect their jailers to "wash their wounds" as the one in Acts 16 did.
None of the foregoing can remain at the level of pious reflection, of course. Over and over again, scriptures tell us, "Do not only listen to the word; do what it tells you" (James 1:22). Jesus himself emphasized the importance of an active, direct prison ministry in the parable of the Last Judgment: "I was in prison and you visited me." ..."When did we see you sick or in prison and go visit you?"..."Whatever you did for the least of my people, you did for me" (Matthew 25:36-40).
If we claim to be Christ's disciples, we cannot limit our Christian love only to those we find sympathetic. Instead we must make that revolutionary leap that sets our faith apart: "I tell you, love your enemies," (Matthew 5:44), including those two million "enemies" behind bars.
Jen Soring, inmate ID 179212, has served 17 years of his two life sentences for double murder.