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Time of Grace: Thoughts on Nature, Family, and the Politics of Crime and Punishment
Time of Grace: Thoughts on Nature, Family, and the Politics of Crime and Punishment
Ken Lamberton
University of Arizona Press, 2007
208 pp., $19.95

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Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer
Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer
Richard Shelton
University of Arizona Press, 2007
238 pp., $19.95

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Beyond Bars: Looking inside the inside story
Beyond Bars: Looking inside the inside story
Gerard Chrispin
Day One Publications, 2007
144 pp., $14.00

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Jason Byassee


Prisons and the Body of Christ

Justice and grace.

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But listen to his description of some more of the beasts: "It's the sadistic officers, those polyps of inhumanity, who do the most damage, who darken your thinking." As a former pastor of prison guards, I find this sweeping judgment manifestly unfair. Why does Lamberton, he of the lyric prose, indulge in hatred? Well, there was the time a sergeant strip-searched his wife. All three of her daughters were present. One was left asking mommy why someone would hide something inside their body. Karen is tough, all right, but after this violation, she and her eldest needed therapy for a year. Who, again, is the sex offender?

Why indeed would anyone need to hide something that way? Drugs are omnipresent behind bars, and not because visitors bring them in. Guards bring them in. At inflated prices. It's an extraordinary fact that in the most secure places on earth the most prohibited substances can be found in abundance, ferried by guards who augment pitiful salaries through dealing. Several times in the book, Lamberton repeats the question famously posed by Tacitus: "Who guards the guards?"

The beauty of Lamberton's prose, the poignancy of a marriage fractured, frozen, then thawed, the horror of imprisonment he relates, will break your heart. But so will something else, and not in a good way. While he did time, Arizona elected a "tough on crime" governor. Fife Symington wasn't going to be lenient on white-collar criminals, either, he declared. The only problem: he was a crook himself, bilking millions from his job in the private sector before running for office. He was convicted—so was justice done in the end? No. Symington managed to delay his sentence while he vacationed with his family in Honduras, before getting it suspended altogether.

Meanwhile Lamberton's fellow inmate Manny will get no help with drug rehabilitation while behind bars. The programs have all been cut. There are no weights to lift, no musical instruments to be played, no books in the libraries. He can receive no Christmas packages. The Christmas trees a volunteer group left for prisoners were stolen by the guards. He'll get no education—non-citizens cannot be taught in prison. There used to be the chance to take community college courses or even get a four-year degree, but no more. He'll just waste away before being released, if he lives that long. Both Manny and Symington are convicted thieves, but "Manny's thievery pales in comparison" to his honor's. That's "tough on crime."

Did I mention that all this is absurdly expensive? The biggest line item in Arizona's state budget is corrections. For what it costs annually to house an inmate, it would be cheaper to pay tuition at a private university. But at a time when money is scarce for schools, job creation, culture, and everything else, the legislature always finds money for prisons. And when new prisons go up, warrants go out at a greater rate—can't have empty beds. "Prisons have become the ore and livestock and crops," a genuinely reliable growth industry. No wonder private prisons are the new craze nationwide. Not that the state department of corrections couldn't find $200 per inmate to replace all prison blues with orange jumpsuits. The blues looked too human.

Why the gracious, gentle title to Lamberton's book? Karen's simplistic faith was destroyed by her husband's prison experience, but not quickly. It survived his infidelity and his initial eight years in, driving her to study law and win his release. But his re-imprisonment broke it. Now she can't stand comforting Christian clichés. She no longer abides by a Deuteronomistic faith that says the good are rewarded and the evil punished in this life. She's learned, with her husband, a new faith: battled-hardened and caustically funny. She sends him a card proclaiming that 90 percent of people get laid on Valentine's Day. Inside: the other 10 percent get a card. Lamberton speaks of the psalms as one-a-day vitamins. They keep you alive. You hurt like hell, but you pray anyway. And nature's God speaks to him more clearly than to his wife—or maybe he has more time to listen. "Beautiful animal," he says when he sees a great horned owl on the hunt. "Restores my faith in things wild, supernatural."

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