Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Where Are the Reformers?

During a Presidents’ Day weekend search for a TV special on Abraham Lincoln, I stumbled across National Geographic Channel’s “Prison Nation.” I was riveted to this documentary that told the story of America's troubled prison system where more than 2.2 million convicts live in a world of increasing violence, extreme crowding, rampant drug use and gang warfare. I couldn’t watch it passively; instead, I set my mind to a question: if Christ-followers are called to be salt and light in the world, where are the reformers of this generation?

Germany had her Luther, England her Wilberforce. Our most prominent social reform, the move from slavery to civil rights, was fueled by the Christian imagination of such figures as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These pioneers did not have an easy time with their causes and didn't live to see the fruit of their labors. Neither were their vocations the same. But I can't help but believe God might be calling and equipping someone in our generation to meet the challenges presented by the overcrowding, corruption and largely disappointing results of our current system.

By this observation, I don't mean to imply that Christians aren't active within the system. Ministries like Prison Fellowship and, locally, House of Hope, are doing great good. But it seems to me that the American penal system is overburdened by trying to solve social problems it wasn't designed to fix. From what I saw in "Prison Nation," many young men find themselves behind bars for misdemeanor crimes (drug possession, for example) where their need to survive hardens them. After three years, an average sentence for many first-timers, they are released into society as seasoned criminals. Add to that dynamic the national immigration crisis, and you wind up with a massive overcrowding problem in prisons and unsafe streets. I read that in California (where "Prison Nation" was filmed), the prison population was twice the operating capacity of most prisons. Standard prison ministries can't fix the problem. But they may provide a clue to where the answer lies.

Perhaps God will call someone already involved in prison ministry to think about the entire penal system on a different level. Maybe a guard, a lawyer, a judge, or an inmate will find herself or himself energized and equipped to read, study, get educated and get involved in real reform. It will take abilities and experience beyond what most of us have to effect a change in the system. But our Christian vision of spreading Christ's kingdom and promoting the message of redemption is the right place to start.

In fact, moving away from a redemptive vision of prison may have been where our trouble started. In a fascinating essay, James Beha develops a thesis, very relevant to the current question, that nineteenth century prison reform moved away from a redemptive model to one essentially therapeutic:

...major shifts within the criminal justice system and society at large led to the transformation of the concept of rehabilitation from a religious and spiritual process (“redemptive rehabilitation”) to a highly medicalized and rationalized process (“reformative rehabilitation”). This transformation was driven by a small band of social-scientific pioneers acting during a period of major social upheaval following the Civil War. (Beha, James J.,Redemption to Reform: The Intellectual Origins of the Prison Reform Movement(August 5, 2008), p. 774. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1204707)

Beha details this shift to demonstrate how it fit within the larger cultural shifts of the nineteenth century.

The prison reforms of the late nineteenth century were part of a much larger transformation in American society, which can be termed, following Professor Nelson, “the quest for a scientific morality.” This quest was related to two developments in the late nineteenth century: the move toward a more secular culture and a related move to greater bureaucracy and professionalization (Ibid, 783).

As a Christian, I react to Beha's description of nineteenth century reforms in two ways: 1) with a growing appreciation for the way any societal institution must adapt to changing needs and demands, and 2) with a sense of determination to do my part as a teacher and radio personality to call out whomever might answer the call to bring a Christian mind, Christian imagination and Christian ethics and values to this pressing problem. Maybe someone reading this blog will hear a much greater voice through my feeble reflection.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I find myself having to ponder the same question myself.My son who just turned 18 is awaiting trial here in marion county on a first degree felony charge.He has been locked up for 5 months already.It has been one of the most heart wrenching trials I have ever experienced I am even fighting back the tears as i write this.I pray literally without ceasing for Gods grace and mercy to sustain our family through such a trial as this.He did receive God when he went in he was in with the juvenilles he was 17 and in there the juvenilles pods are based on christian values but once he turned 18 they no longer allowed him access to the programs that were christ centered like the 12 step program and bible study that he went to 2-3 times a week.now he is 18 and he is in with the adults and hes pretty much on his own to seek the Lord.He said they do have a prayer circle every night before bed but that is the extent of it.He wishes to have the study groups back because he said it really helped him alot.I visit him often and bring my bible to read to him and we always have prayer before the visit ends.I know that God has a perfect plan for him and I have faith that this test will soon be his testimony.I pray that some of Gods people will step up and take the time to see the need for reform is so great and these prisoners really need to see that there is hope for them .God loves each and everyone of them too!!!!And we as Christ followers should be validating the love of Christ to all!!!