Saturday, April 9, 2011

Feel it over aain about doing time in prison

He stood there as if he was dancing inside himself. He was holding a clear thin sheet of plastic that had come as wrapping in a package from home. He had not seen such a thing before and the delight spilled out of him. We were standing in the chaplain’s office in the California Medical Facility. He was one of the prison inmates who worked there.

The reason for the joy of a prisoner on such an occasion is that he or she loses touch with the little new items we take for granted. A couple of centuries ago not only were the sentences usually shorter, but life in the community from which a prisoner came did not change so much. Then came the volcanic eruption of patens and…and…and. A man I knew asked one of my professional colleagues what he should send a family member in prison. “A newspaper,” was the astute reply. It is not the news from south, east, north, and west. It is the living situation, the ads for clothes and cars, more than local events. How can you make it on the outside, when the “outside” not longer closely resembles what you knew automatically? Think over mainstream television programming before jumping to any conclusion.

Communicating now is a technique apart from then: who knows what buttons to push or device you need to hold by tomorrow morning? Just ask an older person trying to go back to work. Forced to take a couple of years of laying off and you might as well be released from the state’s hospitality for good behavior.

Prison life is estranging, but it has changed, somewhat more, somewhat less. For instance, if you go into a jail with which I am familiar, once passed in, you are at the visitors’ room; if you go right, it takes you to the main guard station, turning the other way are the warden’s and chaplain’s offices, and a small committee room. As you go down the hall the wall is made out of large - ugly blackened - stone blocks. They are from the old jail. It is a kind of museum piece, with about a three foot square hole at the bottom of one end. It was preserved from a part of the old solitary confinement area. It would be a type of cell that the Apostle Paul would recognize.

What does not change in a jail would be the sound of an iron door slamming behind you. It is an event with imprintable qualities, even if you are carrying a key. It seems several of the New Testament letters were written in such a setting. Reading various accounts, even house arrest was - and is - not a shrugable experience either. These things change a person. Reading some scholarly discussions of Paul’s letters a frequently raised question is whether the same person wrote all the Pauline letters; scholars point to significant differences. Personally, I am impressed how similar they feel, whether Galatians or the two to Timothy. We might advance these discussions about the Apostle Paul if we included the sensation of a slamming of an iron cell door as well as the sound of slipping a card on a library checkout desk.  

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