Message at Durham Friends Meeting, April 14, 2019
Thank-you for welcoming me here on this glorious Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus was welcomed like a King into Jerusalem, less than a week before his death and rebirth. On this day, I am considering Christ’s prescriptions about what it means to lead a good life and to be transformed/reborn/resurrected.
I consider this passage from Matthew 25. Jesus has referred to the people on his right and tells them they will be with him in heaven –
“For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.’…”
The righteous respond that they have never done this for him, and he says
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.’
Why did Jesus choose the phrase, “I was in prison and you visited me”? At first glance it appears to be out of place.
We have all fed the hungry and clothed the naked, taken in strangers, or looked after the sick. It is easy to do. Who would not share their food with a hungry child who approached you begging?
….But, who among us have visited in prison? It is not so easy to do. Prisons and jails are not easily accessed, they are out of the way and there are barriers to visiting. They also require more than giving things. They require us to give of our deepest self.
Do not let these barriers dissuade you, the visit will be transformative.
When I was three, my father was imprisoned. He had a drinking problem. He went to a convenience store, stole some beer and money from the cash register.
He was also the breadwinner in our family. His imprisonment meant that we had no income and were soon homeless… My mother was now a single parent of four children under the age of 5.
We were lucky. My uncle, a farmer, offered us a small plywood trailer that he used to travel to county fairs as our new home. It had a set of bunkbeds. My sister and I slept on the top bunk each of us at either end. My mother slept with my two little brothers in the bottom bunk.It was without running water, but did have electricity and an outhouse. Before winter set in we were able to move to a small house that another uncle owned and rented.
While Dad was in jail, my parents divorced because my dad was also violent when he drank.
These events shaped who I am. When a parent goes to jail, it is a public event. I grew up believing everyone knew, but trying to hide it just the same. We carried, I carried that shame.
When you visit jail or prison, you will find people of all colors, religions, and creeds…but mostly you will find the poor, the mentally ill, the abused, societies cast-offs. At a recent meeting of inmates at Maine State Prison the speaker asked those who had not had a court appointed lawyer to raise a hand. In a room of over 40 people only three raised their hand. Only three people in the room were deemed to have adequate resources to pay for their own attorney.
This week, you may or may not have seen a report from the 6th Amendment Foundation(the 6th amendment guarantees the right to an adequate defense)which was presented to the Judiciary Committee of the Maine State Legislature. The report gave a scathing inditement of Maine’s indigent legal defense system, saying in some cases it completely failed its constitutional requirements and was ripe for a class action lawsuit.
In most jails, 70%-80% are awaiting trial, too poor to pay bail. Not yet found guilty of anything, they will likely lose their jobs while they await trial. Others are serving time because they are too poor to pay their fine.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. …higher than Cuba, higher than Russia, higher than Iran. Our rate of incarceration is 7 times higher than any other NATO member.
Who do we incarcerate? In the late 1970’s we decided to stop treating addiction as a medical problem and to instead treat it as a criminal issue. Up to 80% of inmates have a substance use disorder. Sixty percent have a co-occurring mental health diagnosis. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce is fond of saying that he runs the largest mental health facility in the state….and yet he has no mental health resources. Families tell him that they are glad that their family member has finally been arrested, because maybe now they will be able to get the help they need.
Sadly, that is not true. We do not do addiction treatment in jails, except in rare instances, and we do not do mental health treatment. In fact, the Department of Corrections will tell you they have no budget for programming. We have so many people incarcerated, that we do not have money for rehabilitation. You have probably heard of the prison “wood shop” at Maine State Prison, but did you know that most positions there are for people who will never be released? People with short sentences will likely not receive skills training.
In Maine, we release close to 1600 inmates each year. Only a tiny fraction are lucky enough to be chosen for reentry beds.
Many inmates released from Maine State Prison, are given $50 and their clothes in a garbage bag when they are released. Barely enough for a day’s meals, it is certainly not enough to start a new life.
Why am I here? In 2014 my son was sentenced to 20 years in prison. My husband and I had adopted him and two siblings from foster care where they had been in 5 homes in 5 years.
His imprisonment began my journey of reclaiming my past and of discovering, sadly that he would not get the help he needed in prison. In fact, he would get the opposite.
I hope you will join me on my journey, because in it I have discovered just why Jesus required us to visit those in prison. They are the hungry, the sick, the naked, and the strangers among us. And they are the disappeared, the people no-one sees, and the people without a voice.
Please join me in prison and in giving the incarcerated a voice.
Jan Collins, Wilton, ME
Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition Assistant Director