WBEZ, the local public radio station here in Chicago, has been doing some noteworthy investigative reporting on the pathetic state of Illinois prisons — overcrowded facilities, broken windows, insect infestations. Worst of all, hundreds upon hundreds of men sitting in their cells, doing nothing productive (or rehabilitative) with their time.
The WBEZ coverage started in earnest earlier this year when Governor Pat Quinn refused to allow reporter Rob Wildeboer to view the conditions inside state prisons. After months of petitioning, Quinn finally relented, but only after WBEZ threatened him and the Department of Corrections with a lawsuit.
The resulting tour of the Vienna state prison in southern Illinois provides some insightful commentary and observations on the prison business in general. Though focused on Illinois, WBEZ’s coverage has shone a light on some of the systemic problems facing many prison systems around the nation: Are they simply holding bins for people we’ve given up on (at the cost of millions of dollars), or should prisons be working to transform and rehabilitate their occupants for more productive lives after incarceration?
One of the more compelling voices in the coverage came from Dean Harper, who retired from his job as a corrections officer at Vienna in 1991. He recalled things being quite different at the prison 25 years ago. Says WBEZ’s Wildeboer:
When Harper worked at the prison he would help the inmates get jobs around town: picking apples, bailing hay, doing construction and they were paid minimum wage.
“And they sent part of that home and then kept part and then people had a different look as far as what inmates really was,” Harper said. “They’re human too.”
…. In those days, Harper says the prison offered college classes and Vienna residents would also enroll and go to the prison and sit in classes next to inmates.
Today little is done at Vienna to actually improve its prisoners’ lives. Instead, they sit around in delapidated conditions at tax-payer expense, mostly doing nothing — unless watching television is considered a rehabilitative practice.
Harper believes the mentality of those running the prison system is backward today. In what might be the most prophetic comment of the report, Harper says, “When you take away a person’s ability to do good because they have done bad, what do you leave them?”
I believe that’s a question worth pondering, especially in light of God’s heart for the prisoner and the New Testament admonition to “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself” (Heb. 13:3). A good place to start might be to read a book such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which examines the mass incarceration of people of color in America and the root causes for this phenomenon. Or you might want to get involved with a prison ministry such as Prison Fellowship, or the Philadelphia-based Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project, which is led by my friend Dr. Harold Dean Trulear.