Yielding to pressure from religious leaders and members of Congress, the federal Bureau of Prisons has ended a purge at prison libraries of “nonapproved” religious books and materials. The purge was undertaken because of terrorism concerns. Books taken off shelves will be returned, the bureau announced September 26, except for material “that could be radicalizing or incite violence.”
For 16 years I have lived under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Corrections. I know firsthand what behaviors are being bred within prisons. I entered the system when I was 18 years old. I spent five years learning from seasoned veterans how to be a better criminal.
When I was a newly ordained pastor, I heard a speech by a federal judge. The judge said that he kept in contact with every person he sentenced to prison. His rationale was simple: he didn’t want his only impact on an individual to be the act of denying his or her freedom. Though as a pastor I visited hospitals almost daily, I had never been inside a jail. Within a few weeks of hearing that judge’s challenge, I made my first visit to the county jail.
You enter through a door in the back where a big sign says All Prisoners Must Be Shackled. New prisoners are admitted at seven in the evening. There are seven men waiting by the door tonight. Five are white and two are brown. The youngest might be 20, the oldest 60. Four have plastic grocery bags with their personal effects, and one has a brown paper bag.
Reading the Bible with the Damned. By Bob Eckblad. Westminster John Knox, 2005.
A stunning book about how studying scripture with the poor, with illegal immigrants, and especially with the imprisoned can produce extraordinarily beautiful readings—and hopefully, more redemptive politics.
Discipline and Punish. By Michel Foucault. Vintage, 1995.
The first major public building to reopen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina wasn’t a public school, hospital or courthouse. It was Orleans Parish Prison. And you can hardly blame Sheriff Marlin Gusman for being anxious to reopen it. David Morton reports in the New Republic (August 14 & 21) that every prisoner brings in from $22.39 to $43.50 per day in government funding.
In one of those neglected corners of scripture that must scare those brave enough to think about it, Jesus promises an unpleasant future for those who would not visit him in prison: “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:45).