The following was written by Jon Andreas, who is in the same prison as my friend Kenneth. I met Jon through our common friend Chris Holmes, and received permission to republish his essay on my blog. Jon is currently finishing his Ph.D. in Philosophy, so he knows how to do research!
[Update: please read the comments below for more background on Jon Andreas, including details of why he is in prison.]
“Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
– Amos 5:24
What You Can Do to Help Those Behind Bars
For my friend Chris Holmes & his church
by Jon Andreas
I’ve been where you are. Literally. I visited your church several times. I drove there from my lakeside condo in Thousand Oaks in my Land Rover. I’m a graduate of Mission Viejo High School, Dordt College, and received my master’s at Pepperdine. I spent 11 years teaching — mostly at Christian schools. I got drunk twice in college. Hated it both times. I’ve never done drugs. I’ve never had sex. Over the years, I’ve had a handful of speedingtickets. I wore my first set of handcuffs in 2002 and was shortly thereafter sentenced to 28 years in prison. My life as I knew it was over. I wanted to die.
I remember shortly after college when Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship group came to my church to recruit people to visit the local prison. I hid behind the guy in front of me. Hey, I was way too busy! My schedule already overfull! Who would want to hang out with a bunch of thugs behind bars anyway? Besides, they might take me hostage in order to escape!
Now I live with those thugs, take showers with those thugs, and put up with their bad manners in the chow hall. An “O.G.” (Old Gangster = veteran inmate; been ‘down’ 20 years or more) told me early on, “The two things you’ll find the most in here are loneliness and anger.” It’s true. Loneliness because of a lack of contact with family and friends; and anger at the injustice of being treated as less than human.
California’s prisons are an abomination. If the true test of a society’s soul is how it treats its marginalized members, then we Californians should be deeply ashamed of ourselves. The poorest of the poor are imprisoned, emasculated, and continually kicked while they’re down. If it’s revenge and brutal punishment you want, you’re getting it, at $30,000 per prisoner per year paid out of your taxes. The prison-industrial complex has become a multi-billion dollar per year profit-making machine in this state alone. At 172,000 inmates California now has the largest prison population per capita of every state in the US and, standing alone, every other nation on the globe! And our recidivism (return to prison) rate is also the highest at 70%.
And if you’re looking for rehabilitation or reconciliation, look elsewhere. There are little or no incentives for good behavior and even less for rehabilitation. Any sense of restorative justice must be aggressively pursued by each inmate, and even then only a tiny percentage find help. While the system makes money hand-over-fist and sways political elections, it is morally bankrupt.
Since our 33 prisons are now officially at double capacity, everything is quickly falling apart: doctors have twice as many patients, plumbing & electricity are overburdened, inmates are more angry & violent (what I call the “overcrowded elevator syndrome”), guards are more on edge & face more danger, and educational & other rehabilitative programs are shut down to free up space for housing more prisoners. Throwing two agitated dogs into a cage designed for one is not a good idea! The same applies to humans (especially gang members)!
Most prisoners will return to the streets — thousands do every month — but because their prison time was spent being lonely & angry, and because they weren’t taught how to be productive in the real world, 70% of them will commit more crimes and return to prison.
Prison reform is not only a desperately-needed pragmatic thing, but I believe it’s also a Christian thing. It’s part of bringing the shalom of Christ’s kingdom here and now. Christians can help to bring healing to this
part of our society in at least two ways: micro- and macro-involvement
Get to know one or more inmates. This is scary. Trust me. I have to do it every day. But in the end it’s not as bad as you might first think. Try one of these:
1. Donate some used books to your local county jail.
You won’t get to know anyone personally, but it’s an easy way to get involved. Besides, most jails have only trashy romance novels to read.
2. Volunteer to help the local prison chaplain with his/her worship services.
It might be one Thursday (or whatever) night per -nonth where you simply accompany him/her/others to lead a dozen men in a Bible study and some singing. Even if you’re a woman in a men’s jail/prison, you’re completely safe. It’s hard to believe, I know, but you’re far safer attending a worship service behind bars than taking a walk at your local beach (even at Newport). Not only are the guards always close by, but the inmates know that the slightest indiscretion toward you would result in more time behind bars for them. Trust me, if one wacko jumped up and tried to grab you, he’d never reach you. The other inmates would tackle him first! It’s true.
Get involved in statewide politics for prison reform, even if it’s just casting a vote. Building more prisons won’t solve anything (except making the guards’ union richer).
1. The “Three Strikes” law needs to be amended…
…to release the 25,000 prisoners whose third strike was a nonviolent offense (send the druggies to rehab, not to prison!). That’s $750 million saved right there!
2. Another few thousand inmates are illegal immigrants.
Give them a one-way ticket home.
3. The governor (whoever’s in office) must be encouraged to release more than a tiny percentage of those inmates declared ready for parole by the (ultra-conservative) Parole Board.
A murderer who has been locked up for 20 years on a years-to-life sentence and who has the Parole Board’s approval should be given another chance. There are thousands of those.
Those three things alone will save the state a cool billion dollars each year. Invest half of that in rehabilitative programs (education, counseling, mentoring, etc.) and we’ll start to reverse the upward spiraling recidivism and overcrowding trends. It’s working in other states (and countries)! This isn’t rocket science, but it does take some tightening of the belt and willingness to cut the guards’ union down to size. (I’m all for unions, just not omnipotent ones.)
I don’t have all the answers, I’m still learning of injustices every day (e.g. prison phone company [MCI] monopoly & price gouging), but you can join me in keeping your ear to the ground by staying connected to places like …
- Prison Fellowship’s restorative justice website & e-newsletter
- Center for Public Justlce (nonpartisan Christian org.)
- Prof. Joan Petersilia‘s prison reform research at UCI (often in the news)
Remember: When you visit someone in prison, you are visiting Jesus.