Some good friends of mine were having a discussion on Facebook about this article. It describes the "Tent City" in the Arizona desert in which inmates live in tents in triple digit heat without air conditioning. The main point of contention in the Facebook conversation was the air conditioning--some people thought that not having air conditioning was inhumane; others thought that air conditioning was unnecessary because these are inmates who are there for a reason: to be punished.
There was some good discussion, with people bringing up topics such as what type of crime the person was in jail for, whether or not they'd been sentenced yet, and whether or not punishment deters crime.
But what kept coming into my head was this:
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' --Matthew 25:34-45
And I wondered...does Jesus not count these inmates in the Arizona desert among the "least of these"? And if so, if these inmates are to be Jesus to us, how should we treat them?
It is a difficult question; we all want justice and to see people punished for the crimes they commit. And so, it is good to have conversations about what constitutes adequate punishment and what amenities are appropriate to have.
I remember a time when I worked for a civil rights' lawyer, and we had a case in which she represented some inmates who had been severely beaten while in prison. My first thoughts (that I kept to myself) were something like "Really? What's the point of this? Aren't they in prison for a reason? Don't they deserve whatever they get?" Slowly, though, as I got to know these men from their letters to the lawyer and their phone calls to the office, I began to have a different perspective. Yes, they were in prison for a reason. Yes, they deserved punishment for their crimes. But no, they did not deserve to feel unsafe and did not deserve to get beaten up.
These were men who had made bad choices, no doubt about it. But they were also real people, with names and faces and hearts and souls, who had their own hopes and dreams. Today, I don't know what has become of them. I don't know if they made new crime-free lives for themselves once they left prison or ended up returning there due to other crimes. And even though I never visited them in person, I like to think that the phone conversations were a form of visiting.
Most of all, though, I like to look back and think and hope that these six men were encouraged by work that was put into their case. It is my hope that they--or even just one of them--see it not just as a lawsuit but as a way of giving them hope for their future, a belief that they can better themselves, and that there are people who believed in them.
I don't know if they looked at it that way or not. But the words of Jesus do not call us to change how other people think or look at things. They call us to do certain things ourselves, having no knowledge of the outcome.
When I think of these stories about prisoners, I wonder, "what if that prisoner who was almost beaten to death was Jesus?" "What if that prisoner who is sweating in triple-degree heat is Jesus?" "What if that prisoner who desperately wants to leave a life of crime but doesn't know how is Jesus?"
If Jesus can see himself in the least of these, and if they matter to him, shouldn't we take a close look at that?
What are your thoughts? Have you ever had any contact with someone who was in prison? What do you think about what amenities prisons should or should not have?