“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
-- Fyodor Dostoevsky
A few weeks ago, one of our brothers was released from prison after serving 28 years. Thankfully, he had the Open Door Community to welcome him to freedom. Unfortunately, he should have been released months earlier and during the time of delay, it was discovered that he had lung cancer. It was not long after the confirmation of his diagnosis of lung cancer that he was granted release. Sadly enough, he was released without a treatment plan for his disease and the physician, who was seeing him as a prisoner, was adamant about not beginning treatment for him until he was assured he would receive Medicare. But, while the person working on his Social Security and Medicare application assured him that he would receive Medicare, the person was not willing to verify it at the local office. Such information can only be conveyed from a central location, even though though our brother was in pain with a life-threatening illness.
Rules are good and they matter, but there should be some capacity for any agency to make exceptions when there is a legitimate reason to do so. Of course, this man’s life matters less because he is old, black, poor and an ex-prisoner. Our attitude of having expendable people prevails and will not help us to maintain a sustainable world. It was easier for the physician to refuse to see our newly freed brother because he matters less than someone who has not been in prison and who is not black nor poor. Also, it is easy for agencies to make rules as if they are not dealing with people and then to hold to those rules so that no one has to use their head or heart because we cannot afford to have people using their heads and hearts when it comes to giving services to the needy.
Since we have more people in prison than any other industrialized nation on the earth, we need to pay attention to how we treat our sisters and brothers that we are often quite hasty in putting away. It is clear that there are folks among us, for many reasons, who cannot be allowed to stay among us. People who break laws and harm others need to bear the responsibility of their behaviors. But we who have managed not to go to prison, though we are not perfect, need to be careful how we treat them as well as what attitude we have toward them. The hatred of the prisoner that exist in America is an extension of deeper, often unacknowledged, racial wounds. It is important to note that while black and brown people are one fourth of the population in America, they make up a majority of the prisoners.
After reflecting on some dynamics that contribute to our problem of mass incarceration, one can move on to the inhumanity that is occurring in the prisons and in the attitudes that we express toward those who have been in prison even after they have served their time and are trying to return to life as free people.
Our desire for vengeance makes it impossible to be humane and that is exactly the place we find ourselves in today. Though we have gathering places of faith on almost every corner in most major cities, we seem to have little understanding of the call for the faithful to have compassion and forgiveness. Our insistence upon vengeance is leading us to live with an eye for an eye philosophy and as Gandhi said, “it will lead to the whole world becoming blind.” We are making great progress toward becoming blind. Blindness to another person’s humanity leads to the capacity to be violent toward that person and that hurts the one being violent as much as the object of their violence.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at email@example.com.