Katherine Thompson recently served as a policy intern with Justice Fellowship. A version of the following article originally appeared on the House of Margaret Thatcher website, and is used here with permission.
If I could attend church in prison every week, I would.
When I used to think about prison, I conceived images of the world’s most wicked. I saw killers, gangsters, drug-dealers, and rapists.
I didn’t see a 65-year-old man whose abusive parents pushed him vulnerable and homeless at age thirteen. I didn’t see a father whose methamphetamine addiction tore his six-year old son from him. I didn’t see a robber who waits for a guard to open the gate so he can hug his eight-year-old daughter for the first time in six months. I met these people, though, and noticed they shared something peculiar: Christianity.
After sitting through three worship services in prison, I learned more about Christianity in practice than I ever had at the small church in D.C. I’d been attending all summer. Not only did the male prisoners take notes as the chaplain gave a sermon, but they also asked questions, led a worship band, and spoke about failure. Some of them cried when they shared stories about needle punctures that caused them to flat-line and trigger pulls that killed. By the way, that’s deep well.
I did not expect to cry in prison.
Christianity brings these men hope. One prisoner told me, “My life sentence is a gift from God.” My visit to federal prison taught me more about humility, courage, and forgiveness than any philosopher ever could.
Here are the most important things I learned:
- Prison is Populated with Human Beings. The men behind the bars are fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers.
- Prison Should Be a Place of Growth. If we as a society were claim the goal of prison is rehabilitation and reconciliation, rather than simply containment and punishment, recidivism rates would drop.
- Getting a Job After Being in Prison is Hard. Even though their time was served, prisoners do not transition back to community easily. According to a National Institute of Justice report, employers pin a negative stigma on formerly incarcerated individuals and are less likely to hire them–African Americans even more so than whites.
- Just Because Someone is in Prison, Doesn’t Mean He/She is Ignorant or Lazy. Not only were the prisoners I met theologically knowledgeable, but they could quote sections of the federal criminal code that I didn’t even know existed. Prisoners are an invaluable resource for advocacy groups trying to change the system, and neglecting to consult them is a mistake.
- Second Chances Can Save a Life. Many prisoners remain devoid of love, support from family and friends, and mentorship whilst in prison. Christians are called to love all those who are image-bearers of Christ, and that includes even the most broken among us. If our society could foster a culture in which we do not isolate ex-offenders but instead welcome back returning citizens, that small second chance at life can rebuild and restore individuals, families, and communities.