Prisoners are Calling. Who’s Answering?

Prisoners are Calling. Who’s Answering? April 24, 2014

Today, I’m over at First Things to talk about prisons, communities, and cell phones.

Until cellphones made it trivial for a well-connected prisoner to reach the outside world, jailhouse policy has usually been more focused on information flowing the opposite direction. Texas is one among many states to have lengthy lists of books banned from prison libraries—Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and Jenna Bush are among the many authors whose works have been proscribed.

Jailhouse librarians and review boards assumed that, by carefully culling reading material, they could control their prisoners’ thoughts and actions. By keeping inmates on ice and away from anything too provocative, supposedly they would eventually be better prepared for reentry into society. The erroneous assumption is that they have ever been removed.

Our throwaway culture makes it easy to imagine that the problem of prisoners is solved when they are removed from our lives and attention. While citizens on the outside assume that prisoners have been effectively isolated, in large part, because the inmates have become invisible, connections still flourish.

I’m interested in prison reform qua prison reform, of course.  But the other thing that particularly interests me in stories like this is the focus on containment rather than reconciliation.  The first goal of a prison is to make people outside the prison safe, but, after that point, something is still owed to the people within the prison.  It’s probably not owed by the victims of the crimes specifically, but, for the safety of the people on the outside and the good of the people inside, we need to focus on restoring the convicted person to communion with the rest of us.

But this isn’t just neglected in prisons.  In the body politic, there’s often a desire to make our side safe from the wrong views on the other side, but not on how to reconcile with them and find a way to welcome them back after victory.  Sometimes (and reasonably so) our first focus is on safety, and we don’t have time to persuade and befriend everyone on the other side in the process of, say, avoiding a military escalation or stopping the drug war.  But, even while we’re focused on the battle at hand, there needs to be some attention on how we plan to will the peace that follows a policy victory.

The same pattern plays out in small scale, interpersonal conflicts, where I can end up more focused on settling a wrong than on providing after care to the person I’m angry at, so that one misstep doesn’t poison our relationship.  I’ve frequently done myself more damage by holding on to resentment than the person I was resenting ever did me in the first place.  If justice means restoring what was lost (to the best of our ability), it includes the love and trust that was wounded on both sides by a transgression.


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