This post is part of our Learn, Pray, Join: Mass Incarceration series.
Eli Reimer is a recent graduate of Goshen College, having majored in peace, justice and conflict studies, and Bible and religion. They grew up attending Lombard Mennonite Church, and they are currently attending First Mennonite Church of San Francisco (California), as they serve with Mennonite Voluntary Service in the San Francisco unit for the next year. Eli was one of the original authors of the “For Justice in the U.S. Criminal Legal System” resolution, which is currently a study resolution for Mennonite Church USA.
This past May, I had the great privilege of participating in a class at Goshen (Indiana) College, called “Inside-Out.” This class takes college students, or “outside students,” and brings them into a local jail or prison to learn with inmates, or “inside students.” The content of the class can vary — the class I took focused on violence and justice in our lives. It was a topic I knew plenty about — I had just finished writing my undergraduate thesis on restorative justice and was graduating with a degree in peace, justice and conflict studies.
Still, I was nervous. What if the other students didn’t like me? What if I did something wrong? I’m not the most social person — the first day of class has me worried on a good day.
Looking back, I can confidently say that it was one of the best “first days” of my college career.
The group just clicked in a way I had never seen before. Within an hour, we were joking and laughing as though we’d known each other for months. It was the strangest and most diverse class I’d ever been in.
Every single one of the inside students was a person I never would have gotten to know otherwise, and I am so grateful for those three weeks with them.
The prison system is designed to make people disappear. If a person can’t make bail, they may stay in jail for a year or more, while waiting for trial. Once convicted, prisoners are often sent to facilities far away from their family and friends. They are cut off, as much as possible, from the outside world. Letters are screened; books are censored; and visits, when they happen, are short and full of barriers.
The effect, more often than not, is that the incarcerated person slowly fades from view. We forget about them, because the system is designed to remove them from society. It is designed, in fact, to remove anyone society has deemed “undesirable,” whether that’s those with mental illnesses or addictions, or those struggling with poverty and homelessness, or simply those with the “wrong” skin color.
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” The prison system is a reflection of both how our society treats the marginalized and the larger problems society wishes to ignore. We have not solved addiction; we have criminalized it, and therefore ignored it. We have not solved homelessness; we have criminalized it, and therefore ignored it, too.
With all the laws we have today, it is safe to say that most of us are a criminal in some way. We have forgotten to pay for the pack of gum at the bottom of our cart, or sped to get home more quickly, or any number of petty crimes that can ruin a person’s life, if they don’t have the “right” skin color or enough money or the right connections. We’ve changed the definition of “violent” crime so many times that robbing an unoccupied building is considered more of a violent crime than a police officer raping someone in their custody — at least according to the justice system, which will sentence a person to up to 15 years for the former, but lets the latter walk with only four years of home detention.
It is obvious that the system is hurting people. It’s ruining lives. And we are ignoring it, simply because it makes us uncomfortable.
How can we, as Christians, ever defend our inaction? Jesus literally tells us to visit those who are in prison. He tells us to care for the poor, the forgotten, the “undesirable.” And we have ignored that call. We have decided that our own comfort is more important.
I will forever be grateful to Goshen College for providing me with the opportunity to take the Inside-Out course this past May. I got to see a side of our society that I had only read about. I got to meet the people that everyone else desperately wants to forget. They told me about their hopes and dreams, their greatest failures and deepest regrets. They told me about their families, the brother that never gave up on them, the daughter they think about every day. They told me jokes and taught me dance moves and played silly get-to-know-you games.
How can I call myself a Christian if I stand by and watch a malevolent system continue to ruin their lives, without ever trying to stop it? How can I call myself their friend?
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Hebrews 13:3 (NIV)
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