Today I’m taking you to a place you may not want to go: inside a prison. Why am I doing this? Because Jesus told us we could find him there. In his parable of the Final Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46) he lists some specific places we can find him and some specific acts we can do to show our love for him. These places include prison; these acts (later called “the works of mercy”) include visiting inmates.
But before I take you into a prison, I want to give a few facts. More than 10.2 million people are being held in penal institutions throughout the world. Almost half of them are being held in these three countries: the United States (2.24 million), China (1.64 million), and Russian (.68 million). The U.S. has the highest rate of prisoners per 100,000 people: 724. Here are a few other countries and their ratings per 100,000 people: Great Britain 148, Canada 118, Australian 133, Cuba 510, Iran 281, Mexico 211, China 172, Finland 58, El Salvador 424, India 30, France 103. It should be noted that China has a system of institutions for “re-education through labor” that it doesn’t count as prisons. And the statistics from North Korea are unknown, although estimates put their rate of incarceration as comparable to or even greater than the U.S.
In the United States, what offenses have the prisoners committed? Here is a run-down: 48.8% drugs; 10.3% immigration; 6.6% sexual crimes; 6.1% extortion, fraud; 3.9% burglary; 2.9% homicide, aggravated assault, kidnapping. In the U.S. 93.3% of prisoners are male; 6.7% are female. By race, 59.3% are white; 37.3% are black; 1.9% native American; 1.5% Asian. In the U.S. nearly 160,000 prisoners are serving life-sentences. Two-thirds of those are Latino or black. The number of prisoners on death row is 3,049, with California, Florida, and Texas leading the way.
Those are some of the facts. Now let’s go inside a prison and meet a few of the inmates. Sister Patricia Schnapp, a Mercy Sister in Adrian, MI, will take us there. A college professor by profession, Sister Pat has ministered to prisoners for many years, teaching English classes and helping to conduct communion services there. She has written a book called Out of the Shadows, a collection of prose-poems about individuals she met in prison and in the homeless shelter where she also serves. She wrote about prisoners and other “invisible people” because they “deserve to be recognized and brought out of the shadow.” She says that meeting these people helped dispel her own stereotypes and “reinforced the truth that nothing we do can erase our basic God-given dignity.” Here are a few of her students. (These are not their real names.)
Charles: When his first assignment was returned, he looked for a grade. There was none. Spelling and grammar errors had been ignored. Class over, he approached the volunteer teacher scowling. Waving his paper at her like a warrant, he muttered, “I don’t like to be patronized!” So he wasn’t. The following week his paragraphs bled red ink, each sentence a candidate for Intensive Care. Lacerated fragments, broken tenses, arhythmic punctuation, clotted ideas, and ugly rash of usage errors. And at the bottom of the page a final, “You asked for it, Charles.” It took him some seconds to absorb the enormity of his literary feebleness. But then, looking up at the eyes of his gazing mentor, he grinned an Olympian grin.
Leonard: Well-educated and well-spoken, he brimmed with poise. The volunteer wondered, What could he be in for? During communion services he read the epistle eloquently and, at the Prayer of the Faithful, offered a lengthy litany of petitions. He was the only prisoner whose prayers included the guards. The other inmates clearly respected him for his intelligence and self-confidence. And after each service he always thanked the volunteer effusively, as if she’d saved his life. At some point, his trust grew enough that, with eyes cast down and in a whisper, he acknowledged his crime to the volunteer. He’d molested his young daughter. The confession and the shame seemed to wilt him. Turning to leave the chapel, he mumbled a furtive “Pray for me” with none of his usual composure.
Dennis: “Fear,” he said, gray hair bent. “When I get out there, I don’t know if I’ll have the strength…” His voice vanished. Well, of course it will hound him, the addiction to crack. The Hound of Cocaine Heaven will leap over razor wire and stalk him after his release, will howl when possible employers figure odds and choose security. Doors will close. Dennis’ wife has left him. He doesn’t blame her, either. His college degree in engineering didn’t address the reconstruction of his life while battling an addiction always threatening to return. Frightened and disgraced, he hesitates to call himself a Son of God, and has branded himself just “felon.”
Tommy: Tommy’s eyes had lost luster since the previous month’s prison service. His hopes for parole had been dashed by a twelve month “flop.” Blond hair rimming the delicately boned face, he looked to be nineteen or twenty and was struggling not to cry. Asked if he’d been given a reason for his extension, he replied, “They said because of the emotional damage to the victim.” It wasn’t hard to speculate on the crime. And Tommy seemed to realize that this was an offense he could never make restitution for regardless of his remorse and good intentions. He shuffled back to his pew, perhaps trying to absorb the truth of sin’s irreversibility, aware that, as the perpetrator, he had done profound emotional damage to himself as well.
Samuel: Sometimes they asked the teacher hard questions. Samuel, for instance. During a brief lull in class he bounced up on his feet and asked out of the blue, “Do you love us?” He meant, of course, the students in this classroom with barred windows. Felons all. Samuel himself had said in a previous class, that the way you proved your manhood in his neighborhood was shooting somebody. And that he was a man. The teacher paused for a moment—as if there were multiple answers to choose from. Finally she said, “Yes, I love you.” But Samuel seemed to have anticipated that response and wasn’t ready to sit down yet. “Why?” he asked. This was clearly a much harder question to answer, but the teacher had to admire Samuel’s tenacity as he stood there, expectant, all of his face a question mark.
Today I took you inside a prison. Why? Because Jesus told us we could visit him there.
Did anything surprise you or touch you?
PS: If you are interested in getting Sister Pat’s book, send a check or money order for $12 ($10 for the book, $2 for postage) to Patricia Schnapp, RSM; 614 Oakwood; Adrian, MI 49221 or email her at: [email protected]
I enjoyed my day last Saturday at the Sisters of Charity retreat center in Cincinnati, OH. I shared with about 65 other women some of the gifts of autumn: beauty, harvest, fallow time, and letting go. Thank you to all who came!
Also, I will be on retreat this week. I promise to remember all my “blog readers” very specially in my prayer!