Criminal Justice – The Corrective System’s Oxymoron

Posted on June 3, 2008


My wife recently made a pastor’s visit to the son of a parishioner who is in jail for drug use. She called me on her return home with some musings (and lamentations) about how awful the conditions are, and what jail actually produces, in the incarcerated, and in society.


There are several rules and regulations that inmates have to live by, and many of them don’t really make any sense. Simply put, the system is unrefined.

1. If you are incarcerated for drug use (which was the offense of the person my wife visited, from here on known as “our inmate”) you could be placed in high security with murders and rapists if there is any glitch in your process of prosecution.

2. In those areas, in order to survive, you must immediately identify yourself with your race and enter into a “gang” just to survive. It has happened more than once, that one particular group will just simply decide you should die, and kill you, for no other reason than race, or any number of arbitrary crazy reasonings.

3. When “our inmate” transferred jails, he was not allowed to take any physical possessions with him that he had accumulated, either by gifts or purchasing. So for his court hearing, where he wanted to look presentable, instead of having any toiletries or clothes, he was forced to attend in his orange jail suit.

4. When they release you from jail (and this makes no sense to me), they do it at midnight! What agency, social organization, apartment complex, or anything that can help you reassimilate back into society is open at midnight?! “Our inmate” was release a while back (this incarceration is his second offense) and was immediately picked up by police, wandering the streets at 1:00 in the morning. Where else is he going to go? The police released him, because he showed them his release papers, but does anyone else think this is ridiculous?


Now, I do understand that it doesn’t always work this way. I also understand that jail in other parts of the world are worse, much worse. I also understand that there are different levels of incarceration for different levels of offenses [One young man (18) I visited from my youth group was only “detained” for his first offense at commercial theft, and was released in two days in the morning when his mom picked him up.]

However, it posed for us the question, What is the purpose of jail?

Saving the long discussion for this blog, we concluded that any correctional system ought to be set up to re-humanize people rather than de-humanize them. The irony is this: The very elements in the person’s life that may have led him/her to becoming incarcerated are only reinforced in the incarceration, hence creating a greater criminal not correcting the behavior.

Things like humiliation, disrespect, unfairness, loneliness, are all major ways in which someone is made less than human, and are often major contributors to dysfunctional and delinquent behavior. Not always, but often. And when someone gets to jail, these things are often exacerbated many fold. Is this really corrective of bad behavior, or reinforcement of bad behavior?


This illuminated for me a nuance of Jesus’ teaching about visiting others (hence visiting him) in prison. It’s not just because visitation is the “benevolent” thing to do, but if we understand this teaching in light of His mission of putting together everything that is wrong, perhaps a visit to the jail is an effort to humanize those who have been incarcerated, a system that is designed to de-humanize.


And then the brilliant teaching of Leviticus 24:20, a law designed not for retaliation, but rather for limitation of what kinds of punishments one puts on someone who has offended. Moses is correcting those who are doing correctional work, ensuring that the punishment suits the crime, and goes no futher. This, in many ways, keeps the punishment issue orientated, rather than personal oriented. Could we also believe that all people are capable of fulfilling their destinies of being fully human, in spite of their behavior?


Maybe we can become a society who, through courage, faith, and discipline, help others become more fully human, even in their sin, just as in their suffering, thereby ushering in the Kingdom of God in the very way the Scriptures teach us to do.