There is a shroud of secrecy that envelops prisons. That shroud of secrecy is protected through a system of nepotism, patronage, and public ignorance and apathy. The public thinks of prisons as country clubs, while they are, in fact, crushingly boring places within high-tech boxes designed more for mass movement than rehabilitation. The human element has tragically been removed from most US prisons by a public frustrated in pursuit of its own dreams, thereby advocating for crushing the spirits of those getting what they enviously consider to be a "free ride."
Both the mainstream press and the public it entertains are too pedestrian for relevancy in this volatile world in which we live.
A3N: How can people of faith shed light on human rights abuses in prisons?
SM: The best answer is to challenge the comfort zones of your denomination, the media, your friends and neighbors and your political leaders. Write, speak and live out your faith on the front lines of activism for human dignity, especially when it disturbs your comfort zone. Only through patient suffering can you convince others of the legitimacy of your beliefs.
Belief in the power of God to move mountains by touching one life will drive people of faith toward little victories, knowing they are cumulative. While Christian volunteers in prisons are legion, they scatter to the four winds when the subject of human rights is raised. As a Chaplain at Maine State Prison, I sometimes was criticized by management for not sticking to "Chaplain things," meaning administrative and counseling duties. There was hardly a single volunteer who joined with me once I stood up for Sheldon Weinstein, who died of a ruptured spleen in segregation on April 24, 2009, a couple of hours after I requested a roll of toilet paper for him. He had been using his pillow case; he had no pillow anyway.
I speak as a Christian, believing that the willingness to sacrifice one's own comforts in defense of the human rights of those in exile among us is the best barometer of the legitimacy of faith. "Touching a life" rarely brings press coverage, but it may well reap huge rewards in the grand scheme to which people of faith must demonstrate devotion.
We must take great care, however, not to be caught up in embellished stories. If we recognize our own need for redemption, we will see the whole person rather than his or her crime.
A3N: The Bible also makes several references to the persecution of the early Christians through physical torture and forced labor (II Corinthians 11:23), and solitary confinement (Acts 28:16). Quakers and other faith-based prison reformers developed Pennsylvania's Eastern State Penitentiary, self-avowedly "one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States . . . as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through "confinement in solitude with labor'." This model was soon replicated nationwide.
Today, do you think that the practices of forced prison labor (recognized as legal slavery by the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution) and solitary confinement have any beneficial effects on the spiritual growth of people in prison? How has your outlook on this question been influenced by what you witnessed first-hand, working as a Chaplain at Maine's maximum security state prison?
SM: Dehumanization is the most debilitating punishment that can be imposed on another human being. Prisoners are no exception. I can imagine a situation where prisoners are used for the crudest labor but are valued as human beings treated fairly and consistently. On the other hand, I can imagine another situation where you have numbers of entrepreneurs in a prison who are making very good money but are working under conditions of arbitrary patronage and favoritism. Slavery does not always have to do with how much money you make. It may be possible to learn something of the value of human life even in the harshest of conditions.
I found at Maine State Prison that the biggest impediment to spiritual growth was idleness and lack of respect in work, in life and in interrelationships. Earn the right to clean the toilets, if you will, or to pick cotton, or to work in the kitchen, but know that you are respected for earning that right and will be respected for the kind of job you do and not because you are somebody's "kid." Know that you are valued as a human being and that the administration is always looking for a spark of hope to kindle.
I am reading In The Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau. It is interesting that the cotton picking "slavery" at Angola seems to get far less space than the sexual slavery that stays beneath the radar of the administration and destroys human dignity.
A3N: The MaineState Legislature recently passed a bill that focused on the use of solitary confinement in Maine's prisons. Initially, the bill sought to limit the use of solitary confinement, but The Free Press has reported that it was "seriously amended" to only call for more scrutiny of how solitary confinement is used. What do you think will be the impact of the bill?
SM: As a former Maine State Legislator, I was very involved with this bill and was the only former prison staff member to give testimony. The Committee ignored our plea for transparency and accountability and, instead, continued its blind, loyal support of the Department of Corrections, the very institution it has been entrusted to oversee.
It is incorrect to view this bill as having been "seriously amended." The bill was killed with kindness by turning it into a resolve for the Department to study itself. A resolve is what a legislative committee does to kill a bill when it fears public uprising if it votes "ought not to pass." Legislative resolves are akin to patents with claims so narrow that you would not infringe on them if you copied the design but changed the color. They are not worth the paper they are written on.
Sadly for this case, the resolve showed a failure of courage on the part of committee members on both sides of the aisle. The House and Senate chairs failed their constituents and the State of Maine.