An Inside View by Carsten Stemmet

An Inside View by Carsten Stemmet

In a world where political correctness often whitewashes the darker side of reality, we have soft alternatives for the bleak word ‘prison’. We prefer ‘penitentiary’ or ‘correctional facility’, where ‘vocational training’ and ‘social services’ are provided. We even favour the term ‘inmate’ over the dehumanising word ‘prisoner’. Yet, look under the cover, and you will find that prisons are facing serious problems today, such as the skyrocketing cost of keeping offenders behind bars and the ever-widening gulf between the aims of incarceration and the actual results.
 
Some people question the effectiveness of prisons. They note that while the number of prisoners worldwide has soared to over eight million, the crime rate in many countries has not significantly diminished. Moreover, while a large number of those in prison are there for crimes involving drugs and violence, the availability of drugs and violent attacks on the street is still a grave concern.

Nevertheless, many consider imprisonment to be the punishment of choice. They feel that while the offender is jailed, justice is served. One journalist describes the zeal to put criminals behind bars as ‘lock-‘em-up fever’. There are four principal reasons why lawbreakers are put in prison: (1) to punish the offenders, (2) to protect society, (3) to prevent future crimes, and (4) to rehabilitate criminals, teaching them to be law-abiding and productive after their release.

In many cases prisons simply act as a restraint – and a temporary one at that. When a prisoner is released, has he really paid for his crime? What about the victims or their loved ones? ‘I am the mother of a murdered child,’ pleased Rita when the convicted killer of her 16-year-old son was released after serving only a three-year sentence. ‘Please stop for a moment. Think. Can you imagine what this means?’ As Rita’s case illustrates, tragedy lingers long after the courts have finished their business and the headlines have faded.
 
The prison system does not always quell criminal behaviour. When money is being poured into renovating another prison cell at the expense of rebuilding a prisoner’s self-image, it is just a prelude to more – and worse – crime. Peter, who has spent 14 years behind bars, would agree with this statement, and so do I. ‘Most of my fellow inmates started off with petty crime, then they moved up to property crime, and finally they graduated to serious offences against other humans,’ he says. ‘For them, prisons are like trade schools. They’re going to come out worse.’
 
While prisons may take criminals off the streets for a while, it seems that they do little – if anything – to deter crime in the long run. Inner-city boys and young men often view imprisonment as an initiation rite. Very often they end up becoming hardened offenders. ‘Prison doesn’t rehabilitate you at all,’ says Marcus, who has spent much of his life in and out of jail. ‘These guys come out and do the same thing all over again.’
 
Public confidence in the prison system is not helped by the inhumane conditions to which prisoners are exposed. Prisoners who have suffered unjust treatment while serving their sentences are hardly candidates for rehabilitation. In addition, a number of human rights groups are concerned about the disproportionate number of members of minority groups found in prisons. They question whether this is a coincidence or the result of racial discrimination.
 
But the essential question remains: do prisons rehabilitate criminals? While the answer is often negative, some inmates have been helped to change. You may ask if real reform is possible since ‘No one can force another human being to be rehabilitated. Change has to come from within the individual and to be willed.’ A vital key to real reform among prisoners centres on education and a change in values and outlook. Some people will argue that the prison system as a whole is beyond reform and that it is barely possible for prisoners to change in such an environment.
 
While it may be true that incarceration alone does not instil new values, Bible instruction has helped some to change their lives, proving that reform is possible on an individual basis. Today, with the help from the Bible, some inmates are making the changes that produce right thinking and conduct. How? By heeding the bible’s counsel: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom. 12:2).
 
Religion can play a large role in helping prisoners to repent of their previous actions. Of course, a basic problem with this is that any change of character brought about behind bars may vanish once the prisoner has been released. One inmate put it this way: ‘A lot of people find Christ in this place – but when they leave here, they leave Christ behind!’
 
I can only speak for myself and on the grounds that I’m still here inside prison serving the Lord, not yet having had the opportunity to go and do it outside in the free and phenomenal world, but Hebrews 12:1–4 states that I need only look to Jesus as the one who bore everything, every weight of sin and shame without wavering. His apostles and those who are all mentioned in the Scriptures, by the in-filling and guidance of the Holy Spirit, endured and persevered the trials and tests of life. I take inspiration from them and the ordinary men and women who don’t receiving acknowledgment from anyone else in their daily lives but are assured of their reward in Heaven.
 
Of course, the need for reform extends beyond prison walls. The true solution to the prison crisis lies in eliminating the NEED for prisons.
 
Growing up in a community filled with poverty, gangsterism, drugs, crime, etc. plays a huge role on our patterns of thinking and the choices we make. Within the home itself, we are exposed to all kinds of wrongs and even crimes that seem ‘fine’. We then imprint these things onto our memories and repeat them once we have the opportunity. Proper principles, morals and values need to be instituted into every home. Homes all across the nation and abroad need to acquire such attributes by teaching the leaders in the home. Our parents and older siblings should be shown how to follow the example of upright, law-abiding citizens. But we have to be realistic. People in general are comfortable with their way of life, which suits their lifestyle. Change is something they’re all afraid of. Only a small percentage of the communities would allow for such measures to be implemented in their comfort zones.
 
One of the glorious Bible truths that has touched the hearts of so many inmates is expressed in God’s promise: ‘For the evildoers shall be cut off … The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it for ever’ (Ps. 37:9,29). This gives hope to those who have decided for Jesus with no turning back to their old way of life. It inspires me, personally, to strive for righteousness because once I’ve attained it I won’t want to choose another way, at any cost. Inheriting the land for me is being welcomed back into the very society that I’ve let down and hurt in so many ways. Once you’ve tasted that the Lord is good and allowed the transformation to take place through the power of the Holy Spirit, I believe that you’ve already been made alive in Christ – meaning that you are righteous already, only by faith.
 
At the end of time, when God’s superior standards are enforced by an incorruptible government that is both loving and firm, every inhabitant will be reformed by learning God’s laws. Then it will be true as never before that ‘the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Is. 11:9).
 
In this life, though, change is definitely possible. So many ex-convicts who have allowed Jesus to transform their lives, from inside to outside these prison walls, come back to prison to proclaim the Good News and share their powerful testimonies with those of us who are still here waiting for a chance to go out into the world and try to make a difference. It’s those people that prove to me and others that, beyond all doubt, Christ is alive in us and busy bringing that good work in us to completion at the day of Christ’s coming.