by Ken Abell
*reprinted from the Winter 2016 edition of Shalom!
I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” – Jesus of Nazareth
AFTER AN EXTENDED and ongoing close sojourn through the labyrinthine criminal justice system, I have dismal and jaded moments when I consider the phrase “criminal justice” to be an epic oxymoron. The commonplace dysfunctions in the institutions tasked with doling out penalties to wrongdoers would likely shock the average person – I know I was astounded at the beginning of our journey.
My wife Anita and I have a son who has been incarcerated since 2003. His outdate is July 2019. There have been a few rare exceptions, but the norm for our visits is to be treated with a presumption of guilt or suspicion by corrections officers who are, as we have been repeatedly told, simply doing their job. Though quite frankly, in the famous words of Cool Hand Luke, “Calling it your job don’t make it right, boss.”
Car shakedowns can range from laughable to outrageous. Imagine having your briefcase opened and being asked to explain ordinary articles in it; overnight luggage in the trunk sorted through with no regard for decency or personal privacy; bowling balls removed from their bags to have the three holes methodically probed; CDs in the glove compartment taken out and scrutinized one at a time; a uniformed guard on her hands and knees examining the undercarriage of the vehicle.
All of this and much more has happened to us in the parking lot on the freedom side of razor-wire fences, which at the very least, begs the question: If this is how visitors are handled in the full glare of daylight, how are inmates in the dark confines behind prison walls dealt with and managed?
The reality is that whether it is county jail or state prison, the acceptable norms put in place to dehumanize prisoners are intentional and systemic. The punishment for being a lawbreaker is to be removed from society and incarcerated, which in itself, has degrading consequences, but is only the beginning because of the all too human compulsion for authorities to intimidate the imprisoned population.
A slap in the face discovery happens almost immediately to newbie convicts – all God-given rights are revoked and replaced by the ofttimes arbitrary whim of those in authority. There are unwritten mandates and an unspoken code that give great leeway to jailers. Every newcomer to a lockup must learn the ebbs and flows, and how to walk on egg-shells to avoid being badgered by those corrections officers who routinely choose to empower their inner bully.
Consider this from the Bureau of Justice Statistics: 1,561,500 prisoners were held by state and federal correctional authorities on December 31, 2014. Those figures fluctuate incrementally up and down from year to year, but remain in the million and a half ballpark. Each number represents an individual created in the image of God and someone for whom Jesus died, so tell me again: how is the warehousing of human beings truly the best a supposedly civilized and enlightened society can do?
The courts are backlogged, so wheeling and dealing is a linchpin of the criminal justice system. For the express purpose of clearing the docket, a quid for quo environment is promoted and honed to an oily smooth edge that greases the customary and usual practice of trading sentences. The cronyism and blatant tit-for-tat favors between attorneys and judges are typical of how cases are decided and business is done.
Another problematic issue that must be addressed is judicial prerogative and activism, which because of the almost incestuous relationships within the corridors of power, requires comprehensive oversight that involves private citizens not beholden to any county, state or federal agency.
What follows are three snapshots that I have eye-witnessed in courtrooms.
On Christmas Eve, a judge wearing a white-fringed red Santa Claus hat presiding over a series of criminal cases and passing sentences accompanied by a sarcastic, “Ho, ho, ho.” In bad taste? Unseemly? The bailiff and lawyers on both sides of the aisle were grinning and chuckling, so evidently this was deemed to be appropriate behavior.
In another courtroom and a different time, the mother of the defendant shakily read a tearful and heartfelt statement in which she simply asked for a small measure of fairness. Afterwards, while the woman sat weeping, the judge reprimanded the grieving mother and father for their failures and inadequacies as parents that, according to the black-robed pontificator, resulted in the criminal conduct of their adult child.
Or, how about a magistrate from family court officiating at the sentencing hearing in a three-year long criminal case that had complexities and numerous delays, which he was introduced to that morning. Six or so hours of testimony later, in passing judgment on the first-time offender, the judge declared that he was going to make an example of the defendant, then threw the proverbial book at him.
As to recommendations for reform, I am not optimistic. Due to a lifetime of observing the self-serving sleight of hand machinations of public officials which are inextricably linked to Jeremiah’s prophetic pronouncement regarding the heart of humankind being deceitful above all things and beyond cure, I am persuaded that there are no political solutions. Is that cynical? Or gritty realism?
I do have a suggestion, which is fueled by the power of hope and redemption. The church in affluent North America must honestly evaluate its role in all of this because we are the ones entrusted with the truth about setting the captives free. The church, living and breathing stones formed into cells in the body of Christ, must continually soldier on and be a voice for the voiceless and an advocate for the powerless.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” When these words of Isaiah are coupled with the compelling parable of Jesus about tending to the needs of the least among us, the Old Testament is wedded to the New Testament to become a call and command for the church to be the church. Individually and corporately we must be purposeful in shouldering the responsibility of visiting prisoners and breaking the chains of injustice in whatever people to people ministry ways we can.
Ken Abell and his wife serve with the Overcomers Program at Navajo Mission, Bloomfield, NM.