The United States has more people in prison that any other country--2,019,234, and has a higher percentage of the population in prison than any other country--715 per 100,000 people. (May 2006 - Statistics From the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics) And just to be clear, the incarceration rate has been rising dramatically since 1980, but the rate of violent crime is only 3% higher than it was in 1998. (The Use of Incarceration in the United States, National Policy White Paper, American Society of Criminology, November 2000)What is it about America that produces so many shattered people who end up in prison? What are we missing? Are we, in some measure, locking away those people who embody the ugly, shattered parts of ourselves, shutting them away, out of sight, in our prisons?
There is a secret that lies at the heart of every human being—we all have the potential for that dark part of ourselves to come out into the world and control us. And only through grace, or luck or the help of others have we avoided letting that part of ourselves control our behavior. Those of us who have not let that part out—that dangerous or destructive or mentally ill part out—do not want to be reminded that we are capable of harming others, that we are capable of severe mental illness—it is easier to hide the people away whose dangerous, destructive parts have overwhelmed them—the violent, the mentally ill, the thieves and molesters—than it is to be reminded that these behaviors, this brokenness exists inside us as well. When I say my prayers, I remind myself that I am blessed that I have come to understand some of what lies in my darkness, though I still find it hard to share it with others. But I am aware that by acknowledging my own darkness, I no longer see prisoners as “the others”, I see them as me, potentially. And I can put myself in their shoes and share their fears, sorrows, and pains. This allows me to more congruently live our Principles and Purposes, particularly the principle that calls me to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Don’t get me wrong though, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of people who harm someone or steal from someone is not easy; I still get angry, I still want vengeance. I struggle with affirming and promoting the worth and dignity of James Holmes, the man accused of shooting and killing people in a Colorado movie theater, and Jerry Sandusky who was found guilty of molesting young boys at Penn State, and the thief who stole one of our member’s musical instruments, including a 112 year old violin that she has had since high school. I still wonder “did’t they forfeit the right to be treated as if they had worth and dignity when they committed their crimes?” But I know these feelings will pass, and I will understand that these are broken people, and just by grace I am not among them. I ask you to consider how well are we each living into the inherent worth and dignity principle when we think about how we feel about the people who have committed crimes against society?
Our prisons house violent criminals, but 60 % of the people in our prisons are non-violent offenders (When will the U.S. stop mass incarceration? by Lisa Bloom, CNN). Right now, incarceration seems to be the only way we know to handle violent offenders—isolating them from the innocent victims, and the rest of us. However, 60% of the broken people in our prisons are being re-traumatized, frequently wounded, and scarred every day they spend in prison with violent offenders. Increasingly we are housing the mentally ill in our prisons, and those prisoners who are not broken before they enter prison, frequently become mentally ill while in prison. We read with horror descriptions of the way mental institutions were run 100’s of years ago—Bedlam in England comes to mind, where violent or dangerous patients were manacled and chained to the floor or wall. Are we not creating modern “Bedlams” when we lock away our mentally ill with the violent offenders? Wouldn’t a more effective intervention be homes where the mentally ill could stay, secure and receiving treatment? Instead these group homes are being closed because of lack of funds, and the patients are now homeless and many end up in jail/prison. Many people who used to care for their mentally ill or developmentally disabled family members in their homes can’t afford to do so now because it is too expensive—the costs of medication and therapy are out of the reach of many families struggling to survive. Many communities—churches and clubs—either ignore or banish those who are mentally ill or developmentally disabled because it is takes too much time, attention, too many resources to support this one member, to help this one person, when there are so many “normal”, not so severely broken people who want/need time, attention, or resources. And who, let’s face it, are easier to be around? It is easier for us to be around those who are less broken, who hide their brokenness, or those who are patched up well enough for us to feel comfortable around them.
What is happening to those Humpty Dumpty people locked away in prisons? They are not in a therapeutic environment that will help them physically, emotionally, or spiritually. I worked with a man who had been in prison twice before I saw him. He was a fairly stable person who came to see me to get back the parts of himself that he had lost or suppressed because of his prison time. He told me that the only way to survive in prison was to suppress all your emotions, all your needs, all your hopes, all your aspirations, and live in survival mode one day, sometimes one hour, at a time. In prison, it required real effort to even keep time or know what day or date it was. You just got into the routine imposed by the guards; you just did what you were told; you just avoided conflict. You did not smile; you did not show compassion; you did not help one another—unless it was imperative for your personal survival, which is not really helping another—it’s helping yourself. My patient wanted all these things back, but he had become so disconnected from his feelings that he had no idea where to start looking for them. We started to work and he was beginning to show some signs of re-capturing who he was, when he received the message that he was being returned to prison for a minor violation—he was unable to pay a fee to his parole officer. My patient told me he had to suppress all that we had worked on. He hoped that one day he would be out of prison for good and be able to find his heart and spirit again, but for now all his beliefs, emotions, and hopes had to be pushed far down inside him, so that he could cope with prison life once more.
I also worked with a woman who had been raped. She was unable to function because of this trauma. She could not hold down a job; she was homeless; she had turned to stealing and prostitution in order to feed and clothe herself; and she had been in and out of jail for these offenses. Her family had eventually turned against her because of this behavior. She was debilitated for years. With therapy, she was able to move through the trauma, stop the emotional bleeding, and find a meaningful life again. She was able to find a way to live that was not controlled by the trauma, and was able to return to her family and friends. I believe all the kings horses and all the kings men, or perhaps a good psychotherapist or a therapeutic community or even a supportive faith community, actually can put some humptys back together again. The person who goes through this process of therapy, support, emotional/spiritual work, is put back together is not exactly as he/she was. He or she is a different egg. In most cases he/she is more whole, more aware, more capable of living in a complicated world. Ernest Hemingway wrote: “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.”
We are capable of putting most of the humptys back together again, but it will take an enormous cultural shift. Perhaps this change will be forced upon us—recently California was forced to release tens of thousands of prisoners to prevent the suffering and death that was caused by the overcrowding. So now, “they’re back on the streets again.” Now what? Does California, a state that is bankrupt and can hardly afford to put new social services in place to support these newly freed prisoners, just lock them up again when they re-offend? Where does the merry-go-round stop?
Patricia Hemminger wrote this: “Why do I not feel the lives of others, understand their aliveness, uniqueness? Hearing your breathing now, those close to me, shoes on the creaking floor...Our wish to be real, to see clearly, connects us. This warm room where we sit, full of tangible life, helps us, a space inhabited by reality; witness to hot cinnamon rolls and intimate confessions, steadfast in its support of our wish to become truly ourselves.” “hot cinnamon rolls and intimate confessions.” Easy to envision here in this safe church family, heck not only easy to imagine, we have done this for decades. If you would indulge me for a moment and close your eyes. Imagine you are in this church, feeling safe, enjoying hot cinnamon rolls and intimate conversations with people here. Now with your eyes closed, notice the person next to you or near you in the pew, and feel that safe feeling, the willingness to reach out to them to break bread and share some of your spiritual journey with them. Now imagine that the person sitting next to you is one of those who have been in prison, the broken, the shattered, the mentally ill, the traumatized. Imagine that they may not be all that comfortable to be next to; he/she might be socially awkward, emotionally reactive, aggressive, perhaps even psychotic. Know that as a person of faith, you do not have to be abused by him/her, but you must also not ignore him/her if you are to be true to your principles. Be aware of your discomfort, perhaps even fear. Open yourself to see into your own darkness. Perhaps you will begin to examine your feelings about locking away certain people. Perhaps you will begin to understand and even accept that shattered ugly part of yourself. You can open your eyes.
My friends this is the beginning of a journey for you, for us, perhaps even for our country. This is a journey we must take if change is going to happen. This is a journey we must take before we are forced to, because we can no longer afford, both economically and spiritually, to lock up so many of our brothers and sisters and throw away the keys. Let us take this journey together.