Society’s indifference

In early 2001, I was entering the approval process to do lay chaplain work in a maximum security prison. I don’t recall where I got the referral for a book, Inside the Fence: A Handbook for Those in Prison Ministry, by Rev. David M. Schilder. But I did buy a copy, and It proved to be very helpful, certainly helpful for someone who had never stepped one foot inside of a prison much less talked to any man who was incarcerated.

Very early in the book, Fr. Schilder said, ‘… a person is sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.’ It sounds like a trite statement, doesn’t it? But you’d be amazed at society’s indifference to the plight of the prisoner. So what if the cell is cold in the winter? Who cares if an offender is indigent and has no extra money for stamps, writing paper, envelopes, phone calling cards? Can’t afford a color TV, or any TV? Should have thought of that ahead of time.

And if society as a whole is indifferent, then individuals who come from that society can very easily be indifferent also. Those individuals can be found both inside and outside of the criminal justice system. Volunteers are included. Yes, and even chaplains. I might add that indifference may be too soft of a term for some. So feel free to substitute fear and hatred, or at least see fear and hatred as underlying sources of indifference.

The fact that an entire segment of society is feared and despised is most vividly demonstrated by the out-of sight/out-of-mind location of many of our penal institutions. Abandon them, forget them. See them as scum, treat them as scum, cleanse our cities and communities of the scum. Send them away somewhere so we don’t have to be reminded of them. It would be naïve to think that prevailing attitude doesn’t gnaw away at those of us who are choosing to see offenders as God’s children, brothers and sisters, those to be loved unconditionally. People, really, no different from anyone else.

To be successful working with offenders requires a resistance to that indifference, fear, hatred. When one resists society’s indifference while engaging an offender, there is better listening, more thoughtful questions, timely responses and follow-up, a willingness to apologize for any omissions or slights, an interest in the person rather than the offense, greater sensitivity to emotional swings and other daily ups and downs. Offenders pick up on indifference toward them even when surface behaviors appear to be caring had helpful.

In my experience, offenders thrive on honesty, firmness, and fairness. It’s when one feels singled out that things can spin out of control. When one feels lied to or rules are enforced inconsistently or arbitrarily, a mixture of hopelessness and anger can take over an offender’s life.

A volunteer chaplain visit can be a momentary respite from the grind of prison life bringing immense value to any offender being visited. Being attentive to how they are really doing, not necessarily how they say they are doing, takes lots of practice, time, patience. As a chaplain, on a volunteer basis, I’m not in a position to fix much of anything. The men know that. But I can encourage them to use the system provided if they have concerns about how they or others are being treated.

I challenge them to seek meaning in today, to take care of themselves physically, spiritually, and intellectually. I attempt to help them understand that no one will ever care about them as much as they need to care about themselves.

Becoming indifferent to the prison environment, and the lives of the men therein, is something I guard against. I try to stay focused on each individual and resist the temptation to generalize or categorize. I’m beginning my 8th year and I would trade this work for little else.

 

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