home
RSS
My Take: Jails need Jesus
June 30th, 2011
10:57 AM ET

My Take: Jails need Jesus

Editor's note: Ronald W. Nikkel has been President of Prison Fellowship International, which cares for offenders and other people affected by crime, for 29 years. PFI is holding its World Convocation this week in Toronto.

By Ronald W. Nikkel, Special to CNN

Over the past 35 years, I’ve visited more than 1,000 prisons on every continent except Antarctica. The more time I spend in them, listening to stories of inmates and seeing the terrible impact of incarceration, the more I believe prison is the most irrational of human institutions.

It makes no sense to confine offenders in a population of other offenders and to expect a good outcome – namely, that prisoners become non-offenders by the end of their confinement.

Yet prisoners can change.

To a point, any relationship in which prisoners are loved and know they are loved can have a positive impact. But prisoners are truly transformed not because of punishment or prison but through the love and grace of Jesus expressed through the friendship and care of chaplains and volunteers. Prisoners awaken to the realization that God’s love is unconditional and that they can be forgiven.

Imprisonment, meanwhile, serves more to undo justice than it serves the cause of justice. Nearly everywhere I go as president of Prison Fellowship International, prisons are overused, overcrowded and highly overrated by politicians.

This came into sharp focus in May when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California must drastically reduce its prison population because of severe overcrowding, calling conditions “incompatible with the concept of human dignity.”

Jeanne Woodford, a former state prison director and warden at San Quentin, testified in the case that such conditions “make people worse” and later told the Los Angeles Times that California incarcerates "many more prisoners than is necessary for the safety of the public."

Indeed, the excessive use of imprisonment does far more damage to society than good.

Consider the consequences in post-prison unemployment, repeat offenses and broken families. Global statistics are hard to come by, but The New York Times reported this year that two-thirds of the prisoners in the United States are arrested again within three years of their release and that unemployment rates among ex-prisoners hover in the 50-percent range within nine months or a year of release.

Children of incarcerated parents have higher rates of delinquency, mental illness and drug abuse, and lower levels of success in school and, later on, of employment.

Plus, communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis find a breeding ground in the prisons of many countries and spread into the community.

I am not suggesting the abolition of prisons. But most non-violent, non-habitual offenders would benefit far more from punishment befitting their offenses, including restitution, drug or alcohol treatment or fines.

About 40 years ago, Philip Slater wrote a critique of American culture called “The Pursuit of Loneliness,” in which he described what he called the “Toilet Assumption.” It’s the belief that social unpleasantness like criminality, once flushed out of sight, no longer exists.

Walls not only keep prisoners confined; they conveniently remove them from sight. The community believes it is safe.

But sometimes the toilet backs up.

Prison overcrowding such as has occurred in California forces society to face the unpleasantness. And although this process sometimes leads to token reforms, public attention is quickly distracted by other news.

But almost all offenders eventually leave prison. And then our unwillingness to deal with the causes of crime comes home to roost.

Prison conditions contribute to offenders’ ability and inclination to make good decisions when they are released. Repeat offender rates are high anyway, but overcrowding can drive them even higher, partly because prisons are less likely to offer rehabilitation programs that ease prisoners' re-entry into society.

But the real challenge is not overcrowding; it’s the Toilet Assumption, which makes it possible for otherwise humane societies to allow those conditions to develop. When something is out of public sight and mind, otherwise compassionate people simply do not care.

Perhaps this is why Jesus said the nations of the world will one day be judged by how they responded to those society wants to flush away: the hungry, the naked, the sick, the prisoners. In fact, God effectively says, “When you flushed them away, you flushed me as well.”

As reformer Vivien Stern points out, prisons are a mirror of society. How we treat our offenders is not just a problem of the criminal justice system; it is a problem of the community.

All too often, politicians don’t deal with the failure of prisons because the public thinks prisons work. We Christians have a responsibility as followers of Jesus to tell the truth - to counter the Toilet Assumption.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ronald W. Nikkel

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church and state • Courts • Politics • United States

soundoff (361 Responses)
  1. Reality

    Saving Christians from the Resurrection Con Game:

    From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

    Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

    To wit;

    From a major Catholic university's theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

    "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
    Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

    Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

    Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

    The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

    Only Luke's Gospel records it. The Assumption ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

    "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."
    http://eternal-word.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2HEAVN.HTM

    With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

    o An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,
    o
    p.4
    o "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

    o p.168. by Ted Peters:
    Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. "

    o So where are the bones"? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

    March 31, 2013 at 8:59 am |
  2. Truth Teller

    Christ is the REAL DEAL ! ANYONE that hasn't found Him yet is spiritually dead. He's knocking on everybodys door.

    He doesn't force His way in. Read the Scriptures and see for yourself. Isaiah 53 is a great Old Teatament prophecy.

    Check it out

    July 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  3. DrOctapu (Atheist)

    I hate to put myself in a position for as much criticism as I am by posting in a religious blog's comment section on the topic of being against evangelistic practices, but whatever. Religion, contrary to popular belief, is NOT more likely to stop it's followers from acting like the slightly evolved monkeys that we are and brutally murdering each other senselessly.
    From wikipedia:
    Sociologist Phil Zuckerman analyzed previous social science research on secularity and non-belief, and concluded that societal well-being is positively correlated with irreligion. His findings relating specifically to atheism include:[143][149]
    Compared to religious people, "atheists and secular people" are less nationalistic, prejudiced, antisemitic, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, close-minded, and authoritarian.
    In the US, in states with the highest percentages of atheists, the murder rate is lower than average. In the most religious US states, the murder rate is higher than average.

    You can read the rest of the article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism#Atheism.2C_religion.2C_and_morality
    And the two citations are as follows:
    http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/Zuckerman_on_Atheism.pdf
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/12/pope-benedict-atheism-secularism

    On a further note, only .2% of the prison population is atheist. The other statistics and citations can be found here: http://askville.amazon.com/Religion-prison-populations-Atheists-ethical-Christians-Muslims/AnswerViewer.do?requestId=8384184

    What I'm saying is, basically, that religion not only doesn't stop crime, but is far more common in criminals than atheists, even for atheism being a minority.

    July 9, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  4. James Black

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGSvqMBj-ig&w=640&h=360]
    __

    July 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  5. apostate

    Jails have plenty of Jesus, the majority of the prison population are believers.

    July 4, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • KeninTexas

      I think you're wrong about that. Like society in general, lots claim to believe in Jesus and follow him, but when you get down to it, not so much. They need Him more than ever. As do we all.

      July 4, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • DrOctapu (Atheist)

      Kenintexas, there've been studies that confirm violence and murder is more common in religious people. That's hardly a good solution.

      July 9, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • DrOctapu (Atheist)

      Also, you can generalize it all you want with the "No True Scotsman" logical fallacy that I've heard far too much of this week, but the reality is that your religion's set laws are actually fairly horrifying when taken literally. Just my opinion, try not to be enraged about it.

      July 9, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  6. athiest

    I like how you quoted god in this article. Did you fly up to heaven and interview him? Just another reason you religion freaks are bat crazy. You don't listen to science and you quote things that don't exist.

    July 4, 2011 at 1:58 am |
    • Odessa

      Science is an honest observation on God's creation and properly applying the laws He has established in the universe. Never spewing stupid fantasies such as saying that the creation creates itself.

      July 4, 2011 at 5:51 am |
    • R

      "athiest,"
      In this article, “When you flushed them away, you flushed me as well” is a paraphrase of Matthew 25:40: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." (NIV)

      That paragraph is referring to Matthew 25: 35-40, and might have been hard to understand if you didn't get the reference.

      August 12, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  7. Reality

    It is time to replace all religions with a few rules like "Do No Harm" and convert all houses of "worthless worship" to recreation facilities and parks. Said destruction followed by construction will add jobs and decrease the crime rate and thereby help reduce the jail population. ----–

    And by the way, jails are supposed to be horrible places. We should make them even worse than they are today as an added incentive not to commit a crime. "Country club" prisons for white-collar crimes should be at the top of the list of things to cut from state and federal budgets.

    For posting on all the cell walls of prisons:

    SAVING 1.5 BILLION LOST MUSLIMS:
    THERE NEVER WAS AND NEVER WILL BE ANY ANGELS I.E. NO GABRIEL, NO ISLAM AND THEREFORE NO MORE KORANIC-DRIVEN ACTS OF HORROR AND TERROR

    SAVING 2 BILLION LOST CHRISTIANS:
    THERE WAS AND NEVER WILL BE ANY BODILY RESURRECTIONS I.E. NO EASTER, NO CHRISTIANITY

    SAVING 15.5 MILLION ORTHODOX FOLLOWERS OF JUDAISM:
    ABRAHAM AND MOSES PROBABLY NEVER EXISTED.

    Added details upon request.
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    July 3, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      @Reality
      Why don't you than save your pitiful Self?!

      July 3, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Odessa

      American atheists are meaningless, always trying to entertain themselves with something. Abysmal inclination to pleasures on a suffering planet. Communists were better. At least they had some dreams of making their utopia with nationalism. Both are a horror to mankind.

      July 4, 2011 at 1:55 am |
    • Reality

      Saving Christians from the Resurrection Con Game:

      From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

      Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

      To wit;

      From a major Catholic university's theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

      "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
      Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

      Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

      Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

      The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

      Only Luke's Gospel records it. The Assumption ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

      "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."
      http://eternal-word.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2HEAVN.HTM

      With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

      o An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,
      o
      p.4
      o "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

      o p.168. by Ted Peters:
      Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. "

      o So where are the bones"? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

      July 4, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • KeninTexas

      reality,,,,, Why are you such an a ss_hole in your posts? Don't you get tired of the same ol' same ol'? We sure do.

      July 4, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • DrOctapu (Atheist)

      @Odessa
      I take offense to that. Try living without us or anyone who went against religion. Galileo and other important scientists from his era were under heavy discrimination from the Catholic church, which has been blamed for quite a bit of hindrance to scientific discovery itself.

      July 9, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  8. WonderSpring

    Jesus shines in the darkest world, be it jail or street, by His Truth and the salvation He brings. Jesus – the Hope of the world.

    July 3, 2011 at 8:11 am |
1 2 3 4
Advertisement
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.