Day 26 – Devotional & Discussion April 3, 2014

2 Chronicles 6:26-40

The Scripture today is part of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple.  He prays for God to forgive the people when they sin and then repent.  Repentance is a necessary part of changing one’s life both spiritually and socially.

One of the first “modern” prisons was Eastern State Penitentiary, built outside of Philadelphia, PA, in 1829.  It was built on principals championed by the Society of Friends (Quakers) and was a radical departure from the torture and executions that had been used for punishment in Europe and other parts of the US.  Under the new model, corporal punishment of inmates was prohibited.   The building, modeled after a monastery with small sky-lit cells for individual inmates, was intended to be a place where inmates would have ample time to reflect on their “crime” and come to regret their action.  Like a monastery, inmates were expected to maintain silence at all times and there was no interaction with other inmates.  Inmates spent their time alone reading the Bible and working with their hands (making shoes, weaving, etc)—all with the goal that inmates become penitent.  Hence, penitentiary. 

The model was not without controversy.  Charles Dickens expressed concern of the effects of silence and solitary confinement on the brain.  Alexis de Tocqueville reported to the French government that this model was a powerful tool for total reformation of the criminal.  The critics eventually prevailed and the Pennsylvania system of solitary confinement and silence was abandoned by 1913. 

While the word ‘penitentiary’ continues in our vocabulary, would you say our current system is designed to punish criminals or move them toward rehabilitation? If our prisons do not rehabilitate (and our recidivism rate would suggest that they do not), what other model might work better?  What could a Christian model of rehabilitation possibly look like? 

Rehabilitation is at the core of the Danish prison system and the evidence suggests that it works.  Learn more about the Danish system HERE  Do you think such a system would work in the US?  Why or why not? 

5 comments

  1. I came across this poem the other day. A couple of bloggers I follow have used it to describe what they do, or hope to do. They had changed the word from man to woman, but either way, it’s beautiful.

    The small man
    Builds cages for everyone
    He knows.
    While the sage,
    Who has to duck his head
    When the moon is low,
    Keeps dropping keys all night long
    For the
    Beautiful
    Rowdy
    Prisoners.
    -Hafiz

    I don’t get grace. Like I can’t really understand it or study it or explain why it’s good and it works, but I think rehabilitation, transformation, however you want to describe it, looks a whole lot more like dropping keys than building cages. (I’m wondering also if prisons/cages just make us feel safer.)

    More questions than answers today!

    1. Thanks Lisa for sharing the poem. Beautiful! Building cages reveals our fears. We have to build cages to protect ourselves, our homes and our communities from the bad people. We’ve built over 3 million cages and we still are afraid. I think we’d feel much safer if we built community and relationships of mutual care and concern and actually addressed the issues that lead to crime like inequity, poverty and disconnection.

  2. I wonder what “captivity” meant in that Ancient-Near Eastern context. Enslavement seems to be the normal way to envision it. Did it mean “prison” or incarceration in chains or a dungeon? I doubt it. The history of the penitentiary is fascinating. But it did get me thinking about the study I posted in the resources section. It is an article that discusses how solitary confinement rewires the brain, and not in a good way. That Danish system sounds far, far better than our own. When I think of the exorbitant cost of our prison system, and the horrible recidivism rate, and the awful state of prisons, I think our government should be aggressive about trying new things. I’ve contacted our County Commission, who is a long-time friend, and who has been the commissioner (we have three) who is responsible for the county prison. I am very much looking forward to discussing this with him.

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