Heaping Hurt on the Hurting

Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio recently made headlines again (and Sheriff Joe loves a headline) by reducing meals to bread and water for any inmate who showed disrespect to the American flags that are hung in each cell of his jail.  A friend of a friend on Facebook wrote in praise of Sheriff Joe, because he was tired of funding prisons that are like “Club Med.” I wish this was the first time I’d heard prison described this way, invariably by conservatives.

I’ve been involved in prison ministry for over 30 years and an attorney for over 20 years and I have yet to see a prison that’s like Club Med. Or at least like the picture and brochures – I’ve never had either the money or the inclination for such a holiday in the sun.  And while I’ve heard a lot of people talk about cushy prisons, they never seem to be people who have experienced them.

For my most recent correspondent, it was luxurious and a waste of taxpayer money to provide prisoners with regular meals, cable TV in a common day room, a weight room, and a large library. That was the equivalent of “Club Med”. Instead, he insisted, they ought to be treated so badly that they were afraid to be sent back to prison again.

There are plenty of things to be afraid of in prison without insisting that inmates have poor nutrition. Instead of the bread and water that Sheriff Joe and my friend of a friend think they clearly deserve, they get a fairly balanced diet of cafeteria food slopped into a tray that makes the cafeteria food you had in elementary school look down right haute cuisine by comparison.

For someone otherwise locked away from society, the amenities are hardly amenities at all. They do not contribute in any significant way to the taxpayer cost and if they help to keep thing calm, they are worth every penny. Trying being locked into a confined space with lots of people you don’t know, and many of whom you don’t like, for years on end.

Fear doesn’t keep people out of prison. Addiction beats fear just about every time. Yes, thousands upon thousands of these prisoner with their Club Med lifestyles are so lucky to have addictions that get them sent away for years for possessory offences. Those who have wronged others in some way (and not just the State because of whim of the legislature) have no way to make it right. Prison doesn’t fix anyone or anything.

In Club Med Prison, they might get to see relatives across a table as often as every weekend for a couple of hours, through a window while on a monitored phone, or not at all, depending on their prisoner classification and how close to their loved ones they are incarcerated at the whim of the State. They may spend their nights with a stranger whose addiction may be hurting people.

And the social life in Club Med Prison is very active. They get to be one of the gang, you might say. And who doesn’t love hanging out with the gang. They have cool names, like Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, and Dead Man, Inc.  They might get to enjoy years of sexual abuse. But that’s okay because it may have been sexual abuse that turned them to drugs in the first place to escape.

Unlike my correspondent and Sheriff Joe, I see every single one of them as a damaged, broken person made in the image of God, just like I am. After all, usually what caused them to be incarcerated is not nearly as bad as the things I’ve done with my heart, according to Jesus.

The eternal Son of God became man just so he could die for each and every one of them. I am commanded to love them just as He loves them. Shamefully, I don’t even come close. Yet God knew each of them before He formed them in their mother’s womb, even though many of them would never know their fathers, and that’s a message I bring very often to those I serve.

Prison is so bad, yet so many go back after they get released. They serve long sentences at young ages and become so institutionalized they can’t function on the outside. Unless they have a strong support network when they get out, they simply short-circuit trying to live a normal life. Even those who have become Christians have a high recidivism rate unless they have a church of actively caring people surrounding them.

I’m ashamed by so-called conservative Christians who  want people to suffer as badly as possible for whatever crime put them in jail – or while they are waiting in jail while it is determined whether they committed a crime in the first place – and be as further damaged as possible before they get out. I’m ashamed of Sheriff Joe, who wants to heap hurt on the hurting, whether it’s with his bread and water program or by putting them outside in tent cities in the Arizona heat of the summer.

I’ll say it again: as Christians we are commanded to love prisoners. Our views of criminal justice have to be shaped with that as the guiding principle.

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