Romanticizing prison ministry

H. David Schuringa

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
January 16, 2014

We didn't really allow you space to get into this in your original post, David, and I know the answer is complicated, but I'm wondering if you could offer a hint of your vision of a more Biblically just form of criminal punishment (as opposed to the mass incarceration of today)?

January 16, 2014

That's a good question because I think the majority of folks in the United States can't think outside the incarceration paradigm. Since Space is clearly limited here, I'll just tick off a few ideas, alternatives, to our current system.

1. Using restorative justice practices rather than knee-jerk litigation
2. Paying particular attention to the needs of victims in the whole process rather than setting them aside as our current system does
3. Assigning community service and restitution
4. Requiring treatment for drug and alcohol abuse
5. Re-orientating the entire criminal justice system to future-oriented punishment that focuses on restoration, reformation and rehabilitation rather than past-oriented punishment that focuses on retribution and vengeance.
6. Strive to creatively discover alternatives and reserve incarceration mostly for those who pose an imminent danger to society.

Hope that's good for starters.

January 16, 2014

Having experienced the offender side of this issue, I have to agree. Even at their best, prisons are NOT desirable places to be—for inmates, officers, and volunteers alike. There are moments of epiphany and transformation, to be sure, and that’s what I think these photographs help capture. But what these photos don’t show—and clearly aren’t intended to show—is the bigger context in which these moments are situated. We don’t see how many of those lifting hands in worship one hour become indistinguishable from their foul-mouthed, hot-tempered, “hustling” friends back in their cell blocks the next hour. We don’t see the expressions of resentment inmates and volunteers encounter when their “privilege” of worship complicates the job they have to do.

Prison remains when the church service is over. Even for those who do manage to claim God’s grace and realize a sincere desire for inner transformation, the kind of institutionalization they must accept in order to survive the nightmare of mass incarceration has deleterious long-term effects. And religious experience in prison is no different from religious experience in the free world. Some of it is real; much of it is not.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I really love these photographs. They stir some of my best memories from prison (an ironic sentiment, if ever there was one). But I agree with David: this is a minority report. Prison ministers endure severe, forbidding conditions in order to share the gospel with members of one of the largest and most difficult populations of individuals in the world. Let’s not mistake these images for a gloss on the flaws of our correctional system. Instead, let’s see them for what they truly are—proof that God is powerfully at work in the most unlikely places.

Dem 51
January 17, 2014

Thank you for the comments and insights. I have been in contact with many inmates over a span of 20 years. It can be frustrating not knowing if my efforts are helping in any way. Their is also the frustration of listening to people's opinion about the glamor life of inmates because of what is afforded them - not taking into account the realities of incarceration. Yet I believe it is important to do whatever I can through letters, as a Bible study instructor/mentor, a church service team member or helping incarcerated parents reconcile with their children. I appreciate Dr. Schuringa's article and relate to the last paragraph.

Add your comment to join the discussion!