“Be kind to people whether they deserve your kindness or not. If your kindness reaches the deserving good for you, if your kindness reaches the undeserving take joy in your compassion.”
― James Fadiman
“If a person seems wicked, do not cast him away. Awaken him with your words, elevate him with your deeds, and repay his injury with your kindness. Do not cast him away; cast away his wickedness.”
― Lao Tzu
It is ironic that while the Bible speaks of showing compassion and kindness towards prisoners, the church in America is so silent on them. Perhaps this is because the current climate in our country is one where prisoners are looked down upon, forgotten, and essentially viewed as thrown-away humans. Indeed, no one ever says anything kind or humane about America’s prisoners. It’s telling that in some American states such as Louisiana, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, (up there with Iran, North Korea, and China), yet we continue to have some of the highest rates of violence in the world. Clearly what we are doing is not working. Private, for-profit prisons are a major industry in the U.S. and every prison employee represents taxes that aren’t going toward improving either inmates or society. Every dollar paid to the prison-industrial complex is a dollar taken from services that could help give needy Americans a chance at a better life. For the most part Americans believe in locking up those who commit crimes, throwing away the key, and forgetting about the convict. We treat stray dogs and cats more humanely than we treat human prisoners. Is it any wonder that when prisoners are released back into society that too many continue to behave badly?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe told us “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” In other words, when we treat a man with dignity he acts like a man, when we treat him as an animal, he will behave as an animal. Why does this surprise anyone? As mentioned earlier, what every human being desires more than anything is to be treated with dignity. When we take dignity away from people, we destroy them. The message we often send to prisoners is: ‘you are less than human, you are an animal, and you are not like us. You will never be anything’ – and then we wonder why ex-cons can’t fit in and be successful in society upon their release?
The message we must send is ‘you did wrong but you are one of us. You have just as much potential as any of us. If you show respect for the law we will restore you to society and show respect to you as well.’ We must treat those who go astray and have done penitence the same way the father treated the prodigal son: with acceptance. We must not hold the past against them if they have paid for their crimes already, and we must restore them to full citizenship – we must not penalize them after they have paid for their crime– we must love and accept them as equal citizens if we want to help them succeed, to become productive taxpayers, and to stay out of jail in the future. This also means that prisons must not be the cruel dehumanizing places that they all too often are. Only dignity and kindness can help reform lost souls. The alternative is to continue getting ex-cons who are just like the ones we get now, and for prisons to continue to be a revolving door. Clearly the current prison model in America is not working – what was it Einstein reportedly said? “The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, and then expecting different results?” We won’t go into the fact that insanity is actually a legal term here, or that this quote did not originate with Einstein because the idea is what matters: if you want different results than you’re currently getting, then you have to do something different than what you’re currently doing. Clearly, what we are doing with prisoners is not working. The Bible repeatedly speaks about the need to comfort prisoners, yet we rarely hear churches speak on this, or even speak on mercy and kindness toward convicts. Instead Americans wash their hands of prisoners and often see them as less than human. Yet when Jesus walked the Earth it was with the rejected and despised that he reached out to. We should do the same. We cannot redeem people with anger and bitterness; we redeem people with kindness and dignity. Our current system punishes both the convict and society. We must work to redeem prisoners by treating them as human beings who can change and whom we want to help change. The current system is clearly and massively failed. It is unkind and robs human beings of dignity. We can do better by them and in turn help reduce recidivism. America does a terrific job of punishing convicts, but it does a terrible job rehabilitating them so that they leave prison never to return. We pay a high price both in violence and in taxes when we release prisoners unrehabilitated after warehousing them like animals. Northern European countries have led the way in developing prisons that punish citizens for wrongdoing while at the same time rehabilitating them. We could learn from northern Europe and from psychologist and design prisons that accomplish goals other than merely throwing away millions of our own citizens and washing our hands of them.
Our prisons must not contribute to the dehumanization of our fellow Americans. A kind and loving people would build prisons designed to not only punish but to also help re-integrate prisoners into society upon their release so they have a real chance at becoming productive taxpaying citizens and less of a chance of returning to prison. Taxpayers and society are harmed when we fail to even try to build humane prisons. How can we be ‘pro-life’ when we so easily throw away the lives of so many Americans without trying to rehabilitate them? The cost to our humanity – and to the taxpayers – is too great not to try a more humane approach.
The US has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners, and yet our crime rate continues to be sky-high. Clearly we are doing something wrong.