Very simply, as the nation with by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, neither the public nor the mainstream news media wants to know anything about prisons. Prisons are the depositories of our social programming and education failures. “Get them out of our sight.” The ultimate driver is cost. Only as the public becomes aware of the enormous cost of the revolving door of incarceration will they begin to pay attention to what is going on inside and how we might change the dynamic.
Thursday, May 13 2010
A Christian Perspective on Prisons
An interview with Stan Moody
Contributed by: angola3news
Stan Moody has served in the Maine State House of Representatives both as a Republican and a Democrat, pastors a small country church in Central Maine and served as a Chaplain at the maximum security Maine State Prison, where he ministered to inmates in the Supermax unit. He has authored several books on the state of the evangelical church in America, including No Turning Back: Journal of an All-American Sinner, Crisis in Evangelical Scholarship: A New Look at the Second Coming of Christ and McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry.
Moody has written several recent articles focusing on prison issues, including A Suspicious (and Lonely) Death in Maine State Prison’s Lockdown Unit, At Angola Prison, Does Jesus Christ Save?, and Maine’s New Capital Punishment Law: Solitary Confinement. For more, please visit www(dot)stanmoody(dot)com.
Angola 3 News: The Bible uses the word “prison” 116 times, and Psalm 69:33 reads, “. . . the LORD heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners.” Throughout the Bible, prison and executions are identified as tools of oppression against the underclass and dissidents, including the early Apostles and Jesus himself. The Bible presents the liberation of prisoners as a social good, as illustrated by the following noteworthy passages:
* “Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungry. The LORD looseth the prisoners.” (Psalm 146:7)
* “I the LORD have called thee in righteousness . . . to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” (Isaiah 42:6-7)
* “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1).
US popular culture often proudly makes reference to the Judeo-Christian traditions so prominent in US history, yet “Get tough on crime,” is still the winning political slogan of the day. How did society come to view incarceration as a social good, as something necessary to keep society safe?
Stan Moody: First, we have ghettoized ourselves into white, suburban group-think that builds on self-righteousness. We are probably the most self-righteous nation on earth, which precludes us from contemplating, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Tragically, the greatest social good in America has become the acquisition of wealth through “legitimate” means, such as self promotion and corporate empire building, where greed becomes an acceptable virtue. Those who take shortcuts to the American Dream are pariahs to be banished from the kingdom of us pedestrian wannabees who, in frustration, quietly cheat on our taxes and on our spouses.
Jesus makes it clear that His followers are to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, leave vengeance and retribution up to God and visit Him in prison. “Inasmuch as you have or have not done it to the least of these my brothers, you have or have not done it to me.”
A cursory examination of our nation’s history will satisfy that the founders had no Christian theocracy in mind and, in fact, crafted a document that expressly ensured otherwise. Yet, people who advocate for the theocratic view are not listening. The best evidence that we are not a Christian nation is not in the actions of government but in the actions of our erstwhile evangelical state church that has embraced the Republican Party as God’s instrument for redemption. The vehicle for that redemption is a moral code rather than divine grace. Getting tough on crime is just another version of an anti-Christian moral code.
A3N: Why do you suppose prisons and prisoners’ living conditions are so far removed from the popular US consciousness today? How do US popular culture and the corporate media present the issue of human rights in prison?
SM: Very simply, as the nation with by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, neither the public nor the mainstream news media wants to know anything about prisons. Prisons are the depositories of our social programming and education failures. “Get them out of our sight.” The ultimate driver is cost. Only as the public becomes aware of the enormous cost of the revolving door of incarceration will they begin to pay attention to what is going on inside and how we might change the dynamic. Corrections has taken full advantage of this denial by essentially saying, “You cannot possibly understand what we are up against.” They have built incarceration into a growth industry that is sapping our national strength and shredding our decency.
There is a shroud of secrecy that envelops prisons. That shroud of secrecy is protected through a system of nepotism, patronage, and public ignorance and apathy. The public thinks of prisons as country clubs, while they are, in fact, crushingly boring places within high-tech boxes designed more for mass movement than rehabilitation. The human element has tragically been removed from most US prisons by a public frustrated in pursuit of its own dreams, thereby advocating for crushing the spirits of those getting what they enviously consider to be a “free ride.”
Both the mainstream press and the public it entertains are too pedestrian for relevancy in this volatile world in which we live.
A3N: How can people of faith shed light on human rights abuses in prisons?
SM: The best answer is to challenge the comfort zones of your denomination, the media, your friends and neighbors and your political leaders. Write, speak and live out your faith on the front lines of activism for human dignity, especially when it disturbs your comfort zone. Only through patient suffering can you convince others of the legitimacy of your beliefs.
Belief in the power of God to move mountains by touching one life will drive people of faith toward little victories, knowing they are cumulative. While Christian volunteers in prisons are legion, they scatter to the four winds when the subject of human rights is raised. As a Chaplain at Maine State Prison, I sometimes was criticized by management for not sticking to “Chaplain things,” meaning administrative and counseling duties. There was hardly a single volunteer who joined with me once I stood up for Sheldon Weinstein, who died of a ruptured spleen in segregation on April 24, 2009, a couple of hours after I requested a roll of toilet paper for him. He had been using his pillow case; he had no pillow anyway.
I speak as a Christian, believing that the willingness to sacrifice one’s own comforts in defense of the human rights of those in exile among us is the best barometer of the legitimacy of faith. “Touching a life” rarely brings press coverage, but it may well reap huge rewards in the grand scheme to which people of faith must demonstrate devotion.
We must take great care, however, not to be caught up in embellished stories. If we recognize our own need for redemption, we will see the whole person rather than his or her crime.
A3N: The Bible also makes several references to the persecution of the early Christians through physical torture and forced labor (II Corinthians 11:23), and solitary confinement (Acts 28:16). Quakers and other faith-based prison reformers developed Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary, self-avowedly “one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States . . . as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through ‘confinement in solitude with labor’.” This model was soon replicated nationwide.
Today, do you think that the practices of forced prison labor (recognized as legal slavery by the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution) and solitary confinement have any beneficial effects on the spiritual growth of people in prison? How has your outlook on this question been influenced by what you witnessed first-hand, working as a Chaplain at Maine’s maximum security state prison?
SM: Dehumanization is the most debilitating punishment that can be imposed on another human being. Prisoners are no exception. I can imagine a situation where prisoners are used for the crudest labor but are valued as human beings – treated fairly and consistently. On the other hand, I can imagine another situation where you have numbers of entrepreneurs in a prison who are making very good money but are working under conditions of arbitrary patronage and favoritism. Slavery does not always have to do with how much money you make. It may be possible to learn something of the value of human life even in the harshest of conditions.
I found at Maine State Prison that the biggest impediment to spiritual growth was idleness and lack of respect in work, in life and in interrelationships. Earn the right to clean the toilets, if you will, or to pick cotton, or to work in the kitchen, but know that you are respected for earning that right and will be respected for the kind of job you do and not because you are somebody’s “kid.” Know that you are valued as a human being and that the administration is always looking for a spark of hope to kindle.
I am reading In The Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau. It is interesting that the cotton picking “slavery” at Angola seems to get far less space than the sexual slavery that stays beneath the radar of the administration and destroys human dignity.
A3N: The Maine State Legislature recently passed a bill that focused on the use of solitary confinement in Maine’s prisons. Initially, the bill sought to limit the use of solitary confinement, but The Free Press has reported that it was “seriously amended” to only call for more scrutiny of how solitary confinement is used. What do you think will be the impact of the bill?
SM: As a former Maine State Legislator, I was very involved with this bill and was the only former prison staff member to give testimony. The Committee ignored our plea for transparency and accountability and, instead, continued its blind, loyal support of the Department of Corrections, the very institution it has been entrusted to oversee.
It is incorrect to view this bill as having been “seriously amended.” The bill was killed with kindness by turning it into a resolve for the Department to study itself. A resolve is what a legislative committee does to kill a bill when it fears public uprising if it votes “ought not to pass.” Legislative resolves are akin to patents with claims so narrow that you would not infringe on them if you copied the design but changed the color. They are not worth the paper they are written on.
Sadly for this case, the resolve showed a failure of courage on the part of committee members on both sides of the aisle. The House and Senate chairs failed their constituents and the State of Maine.
The good news is that with the upcoming legislative session to begin in January, 2011, and with the election of a new Governor, there will be a bevy of new prison bills to debate. I have personally spoken to 6 gubernatorial candidates about the conditions at the Department of Corrections and the Maine prison system and expect that the next Governor will be far better informed than previously. Further good news is that the prison administration immediately began to implement some of the advances contained in the bill. This, after having expended their energies defending their previous policies, indicates that they are aware of the battle ahead.
Prisoners who “were not supposed to be there” were put back into population. Solitary confinement residents can now earn privileges such as up to 4 hours daily outside their cells, normal prison garb instead of orange jump suits, TV’s and radios, and contact visits. Sadly, there has not yet been a disposition with regard to those mentally ill prisoners held in solitary.
A3N: From the perspective of someone who has worked inside a prison as well as in the Maine State House of Representatives, why do you think that a stronger version of the bill was unable to be passed? Why did government officials and prison authorities oppose it?
SM: Corrections administrators in Maine have successfully sold the public on the falsehood that nobody understands what they are up against. From the Commissioner on down, with occasional exceptions, you have people who have come up through the guard system rather than professionals trained to be innovative in solving the larger problem of the waste of human life. The Governor and legislative committee members, convinced that they did not understand people convicted of crimes, consistently bowed to the wisdom of the “old boy network.”
I recently intervened in a law suit by a former guard against the State of Maine for the purpose of unsealing a deposition that offers a damning picture of the inside politics of Maine State Prison. I was successful in doing so and have studied it in its entirety. The closest I can come to describing it is that it ought to be subject to a RICO (federal racketeering) investigation. Over the next week or so, I expect to issue a public report. It is a fear-based culture that adheres to secrecy at the expense of both staff and prisoners. While there is very little skill in managing people, what distinguishes prison management the most and is most endearing to politicians is the ability to circle the wagons to put out fires.
The legislative committee of oversight has become an echo chamber for the Department of Corrections. It exhibits the height of denial and laziness to fail to listen to professionals who have put their personal reputations on the line in the pursuit of truth. Why would they listen to such people when it is their pattern of behavior to sacrifice their own integrity in the pursuit of political gain?
We are not done… This bill was the best thing to come along for prison reform in the history of the State for it showed the Department as the tired old system it is – a 19th Century culture housed in a 21st Century box… We will prevail, God willing, and we will see a day when our Corrections house is cleaned from top to bottom…
A3N: Any closing thoughts?
SM: The Eastern State Penitentiary was torn down, I believe, in 1973…Most of the prisons in the U.S. today, however, retain the Eastern State, 19th Century Quaker culture that punishment builds character. It has survived through a system of patronage and nepotism – getting rid of good staff people in favor of the corrupt. The high tech boxes that we today call prisons are designed to manage mass movement rather than to build community and self respect, with punishment being arbitrary, inconsistent and capricious in most cases, extended out of sheer boredom.
Prison staff believes and promotes the belief that they have dangerous jobs…I ran some statistics on jobs in the US…Prison guards hardly surface…At the top are commercial fishing and logging industries, both prominent in Maine but rarely heard to complain about danger…It might interest the readers to know that a prison guard has a lower death rate than do licensed drivers – lower than 21 per 100,000 population.
Studies prove that re-entry programs begun in the inside and carried over to the outside will cut recidivism rates by as much as 75%. Why, then, are we not implementing those programs? I believe it is because Corrections is protecting itself as a growth industry. It is only when the public begins to realize it is being fleeced, will it demand change. Meanwhile, we the people continue to elect arrogant obstructionists to public office in protection of the status quo.
Angola 3 News is a new project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www(dot)angola3news(dot)com, where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.