Animals. Subhuman. Unrepentant. Undeserving of mercy.
The perceptions that many people have of prisoners are harsh and unforgiving. They are formed by television and movies, augmented by the nightly news, and used by politicians seeking to sway voters that they are “tough on crime.” The general sense is that the men and women behind bars are there because they are unable to be a part of the larger society, and that we are all better off with them isolated from “regular people.”
This was the view of M. Leann Skeen. In an article for the Marshall Project, she describes growing up in a law enforcement family. “I certainly thought prisoners were different from normal people,” she recalls. “They didn’t feel pain like I did. Being abused wasn’t as bad for them as it would be for someone like me, I figured.”
That view began to change after she took a position as a corrections officer in Oklahoma.
From the beginning of her tenure at the Lawton Correctional Facility, Skeen sought to find a balance being tough and being fair. She remembers wrestling about whether she should compliment one of the prisoners for a pencil sketch he had made. “Don’t get the idea you can take advantage of me,” she finally told the man, “but I want you to know you’re an extraordinary artist.”
Skeen also remembers another prisoner who returned to prison after a surgical procedure with a colostomy bag. “The only thing worse than being in prison was being in there in his condition,” she says, displaying a compassion that was lacking when she started the job.
Eventually, Skeen accepted a different position at the facility assisting prisoners who were preparing for release. And while the backstories for the men varied, the nearly universal constant for each was the sense of inevitability that they would end up in prison. That these prophecies ended up as self-fulfilling only points to the lack of hope each of these men faced long before their incarceration became a reality.
“I felt that, like my father, I had been viewing the world through the wrong lens,” Skeen concludes. “And the prisoners I met who were locked away, as well as the ones trying to reemerge on the outside—they were the ones helping me see things as they truly are.”
Prison Fellowship believes that no one is beyond God’s redemptive reach. With the help of volunteers and staff in correction facilities across the nation, Prison Fellowship is working to both spiritual and practical support so that when men and women leave prison, they are returning to their communities as changed individuals, prepared to positively contribute to their communities. To learn more about how prisoners are being readied for life outside the bars, click here.