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November 25, 2008

The image of God behind bars

Chess_piece Inmates in New Jersey State Prison and students from Princeton University clashed in battle this month -- on chess boards.  A New York Times article describes the "cultural exchange program" that gives men in New Jersey's maximum security facility the chance to compete against some of the brightest brains in the country. In a recent competition, a dozen inmates prevailed.

Their wins shouldn't be shocking. But before I visited a prison, I would not have anticipated those victories. Until I interacted with inmates, I carried the subconscious assumption that they were somehow less than human. That creative intelligence does not exist behind bars. That inmates lose awareness of time and space, making life in the same place with the same routine in the same group of people, for decades, a bearable, seemingly brief experience. Prisoners, in my mind, were like fish in an aquarium.

Talking, listening, and laughing with inmates opened my eyes to their full humanity. I finally understood that being in prison does not extinguish the image of God in a person. God infused our natures with the capacity and craving to explore, to learn, to understand, to develop, to move, to subdue. When a person enters prison, these attributes endure. Only now they are confined to a prison cell and a prison yard.  Prisoners live through their sentences -- not hibernate.

I'm definitely not saying that we should tear down our prisons. Justice and safety demand punishment for crime. But I am arguing that we should do all we can to help inmates celebrate their humanity -- and direct their God-given attributes towards righteousness. We should visit, engage, and teach. Solid academic research even indicates these things dramatically improve public safety by equipping offenders to avoid criminal behavior.

A chess victory may seem trivial. But it points to the divine spark that no shackle can extinguish.   

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Steve (SBK)

I recommend, if anyone has the time, to listen to This American Life episode:

"We devote this entire episode to one story: over the course of six months, reporter and TAL contributor Jack Hitt followed a group of inmates at a high-security prison as they rehearsed and staged a production of the last act—Act V—of Hamlet. Shakespeare may seem like an odd match for a group of hardened criminals, but Jack found that they understand the Bard on a level that most of us might not. It's a play about murder and its consequences, performed by murderers, living out the consequences."

An interesting look at the humanity in prisons.

Laura Baylis-Lockett

I love this! It would be great to initiate programs in all Universities that allow for interation of this type with prisoners. Not only is there the obvious benefit to the inmates, but just think of the wealth of insight this would offer University students.

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