Meeting Jesus in Prison

September 11th, 2019

How do you pastor folks in prison? More specifically, what is the primary pastoral care task with incarcerated persons? Before answering, let’s first get a sense of what it’s like to be in prison.

An elderly mother and grandmother who had done everything she could to raise a healthy family shared with me what incarceration had done to her family; what it had done to the underserved urban neighborhood where she lives. “My son has been in and out of prison for 20 years,” she said. “And every time he comes home, he returns with a little less of himself.”

One generation after another—sons and brothers, fathers and husbands—gone. Physically gone and psychologically lost when they return—if they return. A week before our conversation, her 19-year-old grandson was sentenced to life. Angry, in tears, not quite hopeless but not far from it, she railed passionately against the punitive carceral complex that has systematically stolen her family’s humanity.

Make no mistake. Prison is about punishment. 2.3 million people are caged in our country, barricaded behind razor wire, steel, and concrete. When incarcerated, you’re isolated from any regular contact with the outside world. Family and friends on the outside go on about their lives without you. You’ll likely lose touch, not seeing or talking to them during the length of your sentence.

As a typical inmate, you’re exposed to inhumane conditions, violence, and cruelty. It’s survival of the fittest, as one man told me. “If you weren’t paranoid before getting locked up, you sure as hell will be once you’re here for a while.” You’re watched at all times. Watched but not seen. Watched by correction officers, other inmates, cameras, and you’re watched by ghosts.

Power of choice is taken away. You’re told when to sleep, what to do, how to act, when to eat, and where to go at every turn. You no longer control your life. You’ve lost your freedom. In prison, there are the keepers and the kept. You are the kept.

From day one, you are dehumanized, animalized, and degraded. Undressed of your identity, you are no longer your own. You are who the state says you are—a number. You lose hope. Lose yourself. You live with hundreds of others who’ve lost themselves.

Not surprisingly, the experience of imprisonment creates mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and complex trauma; and it exacerbates mental health issues you’ve brought with you. The debilitating mental health effects of incarceration even has its own diagnosis: Prisonization. At a rate of 50 per 100,000 people, suicide is the leading cause of death in America’s jails and prisons. For people in the free world, it’s 12 per 100,000.

When imprisoned, you’re confined, detained, and held captive. Prison is not for rehabilitation. It’s for retribution. The penitent part of the word “penitentiary” is a lie. Prison is not the redemptive place of people doing penance. It’s the unforgiving place of the punished.

So let me ask you. Given these punitive, violent, unforgiving, and dehumanizing conditions, what would you say is the main task of pastoral care with prisoners?

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Taking Jesus as our model, it seems to me that the primary goal of all pastoral care—including work with prisoners—is to facilitate personal and communal wholeness. We follow in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd who came to bring life in fullness and wholeness—the kind of life God dreams for all. Pastoral care, therefore, nurtures and strengthens wholeness in individuals and in the relationships that make up their lives. Additionally, our task is to walk with people experiencing threats to this life.

There’s no shortage of opportunities in prison to journey alongside people, to bear witness to their stories of brokenness, and to encourage the healing and reconciliation of anything that causes fragmentation. Our primary story is that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. As far as I can tell, that’s precisely the story pastors invite prisoners to imagine for themselves. We come without evaluating who they are or what they’ve done. When we look at them, we see the Imago Dei. We seek to rehumanize, treat them as persons, and offer restoration of human dignity.

In light of this, consider an often-overlooked pastoral care practice. What steps can you take to create a communal pastoral care strategy on the inside, which, in turn, builds a bridge to your church and community on the outside?

Pastoral care means community care. Without exception, the most profound experiences I’ve witnessed have occurred in the context of community. When you include others in prisoner pastoral care, you widen the aperture of perspective, skill sets, and experience. You expand opportunities for the humanizing contact that incarcerated people so desperately crave.

As a pastor, you can get your congregation involved. Of course, prisons and jails vary in terms of what they allow, but figuring out how to move people from the pews to prison is a matter of gathering information and asking key questions. You might begin by finding out who in your congregation has already been affected by the criminal justice system. One in three people in America have a criminal record, and one in two have a family member with some kind of involvement. It’s likely these folks are in your church. Have a conversation with them. Get their perspective. Find out what’s already going on in a unit near you. How can you join them?

Gather a team in your congregation to join the research. Ask questions like, Who do we know in the congregation who visits units already or might be willing to do so? Who would be part of a team to pray for requests offered by inmates? Who could write letters to folks in prison? What creative and concrete practices can we design and implement to help restore the dehumanizing effects of incarceration? What needs do family members of returning citizens have, and how can we walk with them? Who in the congregation could we talk to about housing options or employment?

Finally, Jesus’s litany of faithfulness to God’s way of being in the world includes the pronouncement, “I was in prison. You came to visit me.”1 Apparently, God views prisons as holy ground, and something like a burning bush happens each time we visit someone there.

Don’t ask me to explain it, but if you would, just for a moment, suspend theological analysis and go with the sacramental mystery to consider what’s going in the sacred scenario of pastoral care with prisoners. I was locked up. You came. You came to me when I couldn’t come to you. You visited me when no else did. You gave me someone to trust when I mistrusted everyone. You trusted me despite the debris pile of broken promises left in the wake of my past. I was looked upon with disdain, you saw me with dignity. I was alone, you kept me company. My dignity stripped; you gave it back to me. I was treated with cruelty; you saw me with kindness. I never thought my story mattered, you listened without judgment and let me know it did. I was hopeless; you gave me hope. I never thought God was for me; I saw in you never was there a time when God wasn’t. I was forgotten; you remembered. I was a number, but you said my name. 

Then, somewhere along the way, surprised and perhaps even dumbfounded, regardless of your motivations for showing up in the first place, you may discover you were never taking Jesus to prison. You were meeting him there.

1. Matthew 25:36

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