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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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So Crispin often takes the low ground—humor—which seems to be a crucial survival strategy for anyone behind bars. Speaking with his wife to a prison congregation once, he mentioned they'd been married 58 years. "That's two life sentences, in' it, eh?" a man shouted, to uproarious laughter. Once during a lockdown Crispin noticed he had worn his blue striped shirt. It was not unlike the inmates' attire. When he pleaded with the guard that he was the group's speaker, he was rebuked: "That's what they all say." Once he forgot his Bible (a common occurrence—"My Bible has spent more time in custody than Al Capone finally did"), and a fellow chaplain radioed the guards in evangelicalese: "Mr. Crispin has left his sword in the chapel." One can imagine the security panic that ensued. When a prisoner protested his innocence on the charge he was facing, Crispin prayed that God would bring justice. The man objected strenuously: "Look mate, I did not do this one—they've got the wrong geezer for sure. But I've done lots more they never nicked me for. If justice were done I'd never get out of this place!"

Crispin isn't interested in talk of abolishing prisons. In fact, he's seen their salutary effect—recalling Samuel Johnson's comment that the death penalty wonderfully concentrates the mind. Prisoners attend to Jesus who never would outside. Not that Crispin is overly optimistic: "We have not seen many converts yet." And unlike all too many evangelical activists, he does not pad statistics—it's simply too hard to presume how prisoners' transition back to society will go. Still, he is eager for converts. The UK turns over some 400,000 prisoners a year: "Think what the knock-on effect of a prisoner's genuine conversion can be on his, or her, family and friends."

Yet even as he goes about his work, Crispin insists with Lamberton and Shelton that our current prison system is counter-productive to crime-fighting and society's health as a whole. "If you gather together in one place all the individuals whom society has incarcerated to remove them from the public—whether you see that as penal or as reforming—the fact is that putting all the 'bad eggs' together cannot make an omelette which is safe or nice to eat!" Crispin got involved in prison ministry when, as a lawyer, he heard a judge refer to a convict as a "waste of space." Surely no human being can be so named. Prisoners are more like you and me than any of us think. Often "they are 'ordinary' people who reacted wrongly (and sinfully) in unusual circumstances at a particular time." There but for the grace of God ….

Maybe we should do what Jesus said, and visit those in prison. When I first did, I was struck how ordinary prisoners are. I don't know if I'd been habituated into expecting them all to be snarling monsters bent on my destruction. But they seemed like guys I might play basketball with, or go to church or school with, or share a bus or sidewalk with (not likely a neighborhood—people in my social class rarely wind up in prison). On a later prison visit I met with my friend Jens Soering, a convict who writes that, if every Christian congregation would adopt two former inmates a year, we could greatly reduce recidivism. And if we flooded prisons with visits of the sort the Bible commands, the abuse to which many prisoners are subject would largely dry up.

While Jens and I talked, I kept looking at the other prisoners, trying not so obviously to stare. Some of them were visiting with parents, children, friends. This is surely not how they planned their lives. Prison incarcerates a whole family, for generations even. What's in store for the eight-year-old boy over there playing Connect 4 with his briefly happy father and his depressed-looking, long-suffering mother? Or the man weeping as his girlfriend holds his hand? Or the mother whose whole body announces her aches as she tries to get her son to read the Gideon Bible with her? These are human beings. Kin. Beloved of God, in need of grace, some already partaking of it. That's what the church needs to see.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School (faithandleadership.com).

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