Monday, April 2, 2012

It is clear that in America’s game of Monopoly there is no Get Out of Jail Free card. Ask a Mississippi governor…

Probably you have raised the question with yourself, “What would Jesus do?” Let’s try a simpler one, “In the matter of “jail time,” what would the Apostle Paul think?” In my first church in seminary I had a fellow who had been a union organizer in the 1930’s; he claimed to have been in every county jail in Pennsylvania. Paul must have had an opinion on jails, too; he just about set a similar record. What got me going was an opening sentence in a New Yorker article. It has itched on my mind for a while.
 “A prison is a trap for catching time.”
It began Adam Gopnik’s piece, “The Caging of America,” in the  January 30th  issue.  Anyone who can compose a line like that deserves reading – and he had fully a half dozen more that were just as good. Why mention it? Envy. Might as well be honest about it as an author myself.
His theme was stark. There are six million Americans under legal supervision at any one time. It is not just our military spending that sets world records, we imprison more people than the rest the world put together, too. What helps achieve this is setting longer sentences than anybody else. At any one time we have enough prisoners in solitary confinement to fill Yankee Stadium!
Then the Governor of Mississippi gave pardons to about a hundred people. Talk about hell being raised!
Let’s speculate. We hear a lot about our country going bankrupt with out-of-this-world spending. If you take all that “welfare” – housing, food stamps, health care, you-name-it – I’ll bet that it is exceeded by what we spend on prisons: local, state, and national. Well, throw in the international ones, too; the one we know about on the tip of Cuba and those we were carefully not told about so that torture could be conducted. Oh, throw in twenty years of appeals on death row…
The analysis of the problem was not as good as Gopnik’s description of it, but who has a better? I think it out of the question that eliminating a judge’s good sense was not bettered by “three strikes and you’re out.” I suspect Paul had his fill of “mandatory sentencing” long before he had to play his legal last card in that appeal to Caesar.
I do want to add one thought of my own. I think the “scared stiff” program of a few years ago played an unfortunate role. The theory was, you take any trite acting out and put that “desperado” in jail for a day or so: scare him into finishing high school and a life time of good citizenship. My thought at the time was - watching adolescents one morning brought single file in handcuffs into court - was that they were being de-sensitized to prison, conditioned not to be afraid. Just sullen. Really sullen.
I have thought a good deal about Jesus’ closing punch line his prayer:
                “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Period. End of prayer.
Jesus had seen a lot of overly-righteous folks bouncing vigorously on other people’s lives. As a prophet, his thinking must have been that the “law of unintended consequences” runs heavy footed. “Evil” may be too theological a word for some people on the subject, but “what a mess” will do about our prison sentencing.
Paul doesn’t write much about how prisoners are mistreated, but I wouldn’t speculate on his opinion if you really wouldn’t want it.

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