Monday, June 13, 2011

Justice Denied

Whenever we come across discussions about prisons it seems to devolve into an either/or discussion.  People not in prison are generally OK whereas anyone in prison is a bad person, so if  you are in prison then you must be a bad person.  Seriously?   What about Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King?  How about Jackie Hudson or Father Bichsel?  Anyone, anyone, Bueller?

Until recently I wasn't paying a lot of attention to justice issues.  One of the problems with justice issues is that people don't always agree on what constitutes justice.  So let me state my view.

I have yet to reach the place where I think jails and prisons have no purpose.  There are some seriously dangerous people out there and frankly I don't want to meet up with them and having them locked up makes sense to me.  However, let's think this through.  Seventy somethings and eighty somethings are unlikely to lead or participate in prison uprisings, let alone physically threaten staff, especially if they are dealing with chronic medical issues requiring daily medication.  Prisoners of conscience are generally not there because they physically harmed anyone, they are there because they took an action, symbolic or real, that challenges the moral authority of the government.  They accept that if convicted they are subject to the dictates of the justice system, including prison.  Because they believe they are acting in accord with the teachings of Jesus, they accept the consequences and use it as an opportunity to further witness to the teachings of Jesus.

Anyone who has seen Lockup knows that, contrary to myth, prisons are no place to be and prisoners are not coddled.  I understand the need to manage the prisoners in order to maintain security.  I don't understand the failure to provide medications timely, the failure to share mail, the lack of medical care (see Sr. Jackie's case and Fr. Bix's), and the overall treatment that enforces the notion of power over and against.   How can we expect prisoners to navigate this system and come out ready and willing to join society if the methods used are based on a one-size-fits-all paradigm?

There is no justice in a system based on a notion that power over and against is what matters.  There is no justice when inmates are denied basic rights because they acted out or are simply seen as a 'problem' for some reason.  There is no justice when the emphasis is on warehousing until release.  If we deny people their rights simply because they are in prison what does that say about us as a people?  We rightly criticized the Russian gulag, yet there are many who see the US penal system as the equivalent, a US Gulag.  Is that really acceptable?  

Justice denied is justice denied.  If the people who claim that human life has inherent dignity from beginning to end (heard tonight at the Republican debate) and offer no limitations, then presumably one's status as a prisoner does not reduce one's inherent dignity.  Ergo, one's access to basic human rights, and basic dignity, should not be denied.  But that is precisely what happened with Sister Jackie and is happening with Fr. Bix.  That is wrong and there is no justice in such actions.

The ultimate question for Christian readers comes down to this - If you subscribe to the teachings of Jesus are you willing to stand up for the inherent dignity of ALL people, including those in prison?  Or will you continue to turn away and allow the indignities visited on prisoners to continue?

Are you for justice or retribution?

No comments: