A Christian Perspective on Prisons: An interview with Stan Moody

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.

A Suspicious (and Lonely) Death in Maine State Prison’s Lockdown Unit

March 19, 2010

SOLITARY WATCH GUEST AUTHOR
Guest Post by Stan Moody

Editors’ note: Our first guest post on Solitary Watch News is by Stan Moody, a former state representative and chaplain at the Maine State Prison, where he ministered to inmates in the supermax unit. Moody, who currently serves as pastor at the Meeting House Church in Manchester, Maine, is the author of the books Crisis in Evangelical Scholarship and McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry.

In February, Moody testified at a hearing in the Maine State Legislature on a proposed bill to limit solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. As part of his testimony, he told the story of a prisoner who died alone in his segregation cell; he tells the same story, in more detail, in this guest post. More of Moody’s writings can be found at www.stanmoody.com.

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I wrote this article on St. Valentine’s Day, a day that conjures up a wide range of experiences, from first love to the famous massacre on February 14, 1929…

There are 4,000 or more people incarcerated in Maine at the moment. Keeping watch over them are hundreds of prison guards, most of whom would rather be home than spending love’s holiday doing cavity search or bed counts. Happy Valentine’s Day!

There is a widow in upstate NY who reels from a double-whammy of a brilliant, successful husband who confessed to a sexual assault and the memory of his ashes arriving 6 months later from Maine State Prison (MSP) with the notice that he had died of “natural causes.” Then another whammy–finding out 6 weeks later, after she had buried him, that it was a homicide and that prison officials had known as much within minutes of his death–officially, within 2 days.

There are others who come to mind who are reeling, as well, from conflict over what to do about this situation that, if brought into the light, will explode into a full-blown crisis. Maine Department of Corrections officials are on pins and needles, wondering what is going to happen when this explodes. I was scheduled to give testimony on the conditions at the supermax unit at MSP that I feel gave rise to the death of inmate Sheldon Weinstein, a prospect that threw a wrench into my Valentine’s Day.

I have a picture in my mind of the Attorney General’s Office vainly searching for a good option to prosecute somebody for this death without smearing the prison system. It has been nearly 10 months since Weinstein died alone in his cell of a ruptured spleen presumed to have been caused by an inmate assault 4 days earlier. It is not as though they had to go looking for a suspect or that the evidence was scattered over 50 states. Nobody was going anywhere. Justice is slow and nearly blind, but it gets slower and blinder when a state agency is implicated.

It is easier to digest this story if we can somehow de-humanize people caught up in the meat grinder we call justice–guards and prisoners alike. Whether you like it or not, however, all players in the justice drama are human beings, Weinstein included. It is that very humanity that cries out for reform of the efficient, military, detached environment that we call Maine State Prison.

It may be time for me to share my story.

It was Friday, April 24, 2009. I was finishing my rounds as Chaplain at the Special Management Unit (Supermax) when I came to the end of the dreaded B1 corridor, looked in and saw Sheldon Weinstein sitting on his wheelchair with his legs across his bunk, 10 feet away. He smiled when he saw me and joked about how old men like him and me were targets in prison. I saw his hugely black eye and asked him if he had other injuries. He pointed to his stomach. He then asked me if I could help get him some toilet paper. He had been using his pillow case, but since he had no pillow, it didn’t matter anyway, I suppose.

I spent probably 10 minutes talking/shouting with Sheldon through a steel cell door. I then left and asked a guard on duty to see that he got some toilet paper.

I came in the next morning and was told that Weinstein was found dead at around 6:00 pm that evening. His posture had been reversed. He was lying across his bunk, with his feet in his wheelchair. He had yellow complexion, suggesting liver or spleen, his stomach was distended, and rigor mortis had begun to set in, indicating that he probably had died within an hour or two after I left.

My amateur diagnosis of cause of death was ruptured spleen, confirmed by autopsy within 2 days. Almost universally, the reaction of captains, guards, sergeants and inmates was, “Good riddance!” “One less mouth to feed!” One prisoner, however, had taken it upon himself before the assault to wheel confessed sex offender Weinstein to the chow hall to prevent him from being spit upon.

When they found him, Weinstein did have toilet paper.

There is a prisoner in segregation who is awaiting indictment for murder. I have had a number of conversations with that prisoner. If I were his attorney, I would be licking my chops over this one. Did Weinstein die of an assault, or did he die of medical and security neglect? If there is a murder indictment, will any prison staff be implicated as accessory? Since someone brought toilet paper to him, and since he was unlikely to have been able to maneuver to the cell door, and since his sitting position was reversed, did he die from the assault on the previous Monday, or did something further happen to him on Friday?

Has the pathology report on the condition of the spleen been analyzed by other medical professionals to determine if it were likely to have taken four days to bleed out?

Adding intrigue to the situation, the guard whom I asked to provide toilet paper was placed on Administrative Leave almost immediately. The guard who was on duty in the housing unit where Weinstein was assaulted was fired.

The test for first degree murder is malice aforethought–that is, that the person or persons involved plotted and intended to kill. That, however, is problematic in the case of Maine State Prison. Here’s why.

Assaults of inmates by other inmates not only are common there but may be, some believe, tacitly encouraged. In Weinstein’s case, it began with the decision to place him in a minimum security housing unit notorious for attacks on sex offenders. Beating sex offenders and “rats” (people who give the names of those who beat them) was so common that it had become routine. The victim would be given the signature black eye and be placed in segregation for his own protection for months, while those who carried out the assault would often be out within 10 days.

I have written an exhaustive narrative on the circumstances surrounding the death of Prisoner Weinstein but will hold that narrative until I sense that there is movement toward justice in this case. There can be no rationalization for his crime. Yet, he was not sentenced to the death to which he was consigned. He had a surprising background that defies common stereotypes of sex offenders. The way in which prison officials handled the matter with his surviving family speaks volumes about a profound failure of conscience.

The death of Sheldon Weinstein has changed my life remarkably. While both prisoners and guards cannot seem to get beyond his crime, I was confronted with a real life situation from which I could not in good conscience walk away. It has cost me dearly in terms of my political stature and will, I presume, continue to do so. It has opened my eyes to the fallacy that nearly all people in government, at the end of the day, are good people who really want to do the right thing. I have seen a level of contradiction that I could have gone on blithely the rest of my life without seeing.

Will Weinstein’s death be subjected to the level of investigation it deserves? Will his death become a catalyst for addressing the system of favoritism and influence peddling that prevails at the prison? Who can know the answer to these questions? Thus far, there has been no indication of change to a system that mirrors the “blue line of silence.”

My hope is that there will be a few Department of Corrections employees who will summon the courage to speak out against systemic practices within the prison that are the root cause of discrimination and inconsistent discipline.

Sheldon Weinstein: brilliant; Jewish; sex offender; dead within 6 months of incarceration. Who cares?