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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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And Shelton assigns blame for violence in the prison more evenly than does Lamberton, seeing inmates' culpability as well as the guards'. One comes away from his book with a greater sense of the depravity of those in prison than Lamberton's account provides. Not that the two books don't agree on much. Both argue that cynical prison administrators stir racial animosity, even hoping for occasional riots, so they can appeal to state legislatures for more weaponry and funding. Both compare our prison system to slavery—a massive, profitable system that depends on the conveyor belt of bodies into its maw. Both see subversion as the way to survive and writing as the way to thrive. Shelton pontificates more loudly. Lamberton prefers to show the quotidian.

Shelton spares no quarter for those who defend what T.S. Eliot called "Death's other kingdom." Prison holds up a mirror to our society, and what it shows is ugly. We are a violent and fearful people, on our way "toward the point where half of our society will be spending most of its money to keep the other half in prison." Shelton marvels at the claim of one prisoner that life inside isn't so bad: "For the first time in my life I have a bed to sleep in and three meals a day and we all sit down to eat together." Prison has become a surrogate family for millions of people—a place with greater community than back home. (Would it be more punishment to release them, then?) Reflecting on Karen Lamberton's heroic effort to stay with Ken, Shelton writes, "Incarceration is probably the quickest and most effective way to destroy a family permanently. And mass incarceration, as it is practiced in this country, is the quickest and most effective way to destroy the social fabric of entire communities, especially poor and minority communities."

What is Shelton's proposed solution? Dogged, committed volunteerism. Millions of volunteers could make prison more transparent, ease the transition from jail to free life, and leave, he thinks, "only a fraction of the present number of inmates incarcerated." The more people who know the inanity of our current system, the more will see the wisdom of counter-proposals—like electronic monitoring. Shelton's own work has born enormous fruit. We can only hope others will follow.

Maybe we should do what Jesus said, and visit those in prison.

Christians, especially evangelicals, have taken up this call in the past. When William Wilberforce won his crusade against the slave trade he moved on to prison reform as the natural next step. Chuck Colson and other evangelicals have drawn public attention to the barbarity of our prisons and made clear, through their own political conservatism, that what they are proposing is no bleeding-heart liberalism. They ask us simply to open our eyes and look at what we're doing to our prisoners. It is, after all, our tax money paying for this monstrous system. By maintaining it, we are complicit in a grievous sin.

Another evangelical on the front line is Gerard Crispin, author of Beyond Bars and director of Day One Prison Ministries in the United Kingdom. (The United States may enjoy the dubious distinction of leading the world in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizens, but the problems of prisons are not uniquely American.) Crispin's theology can veer toward the simplistic, and now and then he slides into culture-war ranting. But his commitment to prisoners is beyond question, and we can learn from him.

In his seemingly artless style, no match for Lamberton's or Shelton's, Crispin plays a cheap literary trick that, I have to admit, fooled me nearly every time. He tells updated Bible stories, with the names changed. Manasseh becomes Manny, Joseph becomes Joey, Barabbas becomes Paterson (both "son of the father"), the Philippian jailer becomes Mr. Philips, and so on. His point is well-taken: many of the writers and story subjects in Scripture were themselves prisoners. "How can anyone say that Jesus is not compassionately interested in criminals coming to Him?" Crispin asks. As such, prison is a delightful place to preach. One preacher friend of Crispin's marvels that in prison, he reaches considerably more outsiders than he ever does elsewhere. (If only more of us, evangelical preachers and Christians of all stripes, saw prison as an opportunity.) Crispin himself sees preaching to nice, ordinary church folks as more difficult than preaching to prisoners. Churchgoers tend to think of themselves as good, innocent people. But we are all "needy, before a holy God who hates sin." In fact, reflecting on Jesus' words against hatred and lust, Crispin speaks of the unimprisoned as "pre-cons"! We have no high moral ground on which to stand.

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