President Obama’s controversial new budget includes $237 million to purchase and prepare the little-used Thomson Correctional Center to house terrorists currently being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Perhaps the most unexpected element to the story, however, is not the massive expenditure to move the detainees onto U.S. soil. It is the fact, given that the exploding U.S. prison population represents one of the few growth industries in the current economy, that a state-of-the-art facility in northwestern Illinois is nearly empty.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.
According to Jason Byassee in “Prisons and the Body of Christ,” there are 2.5 million prisoners in the United States—more than the number of people in Vermont and West Virginia combined. “The biggest line item in Arizona’s state budget is corrections,” Byassee writes. “For what it costs annually to house an inmate, it would be cheaper to pay tuition at a private university. But at a time when money is scarce for schools, job creation, culture, and everything else, the legislature always finds money for prisons.”
Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.
Christians, of course, have been at the forefront of prison ministry ever since Paul the apostle started stirring up trouble in the Roman Empire with the Gospel. In addition to any fellow inmates in Philippi who may have heard Paul and Silas singing midnight hymns to the Savior was a certain jailer, who exclaimed, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30b).
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
Gordon Loux says that in 1776 the Quakers, who had been working for criminal justice reform in England for a century, carried their concern to America, launching the Philadelphia Society for Relieving Distressed Prisoners. D.W. Van Ness notes the founding of the Boston Prison Discipline Society in 1825.
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Chuck Colson points to a 16-year longitudinal study of criminals at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital. The researchers, Samuel Yochelson and Stanton E. Samenow, discussed the results in The Criminal Personality in 1977. “They concluded,” Colson says, “that the cause of crime was not, as everyone then supposed, environment, poverty or racism. It was, ‘people making wrong moral decisions.’ They went on to say that the answer to crime is therefore the conversion of the wrongdoer to a more responsible lifestyle.”
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Trapped in its secular mindset, the larger society devotes precious few resources to such conversions. “We spend all of our money and resources in getting people into prisons,” notes Colson, who advocates restitution over incarceration for some offenders. ”Then we spend almost nothing to get them back out, which is why the recidivism rate hovers somewhere between 50 and 60 percent no matter what we do. That rate holds true whether the prisons are jam-packed or whether they’re not. So it tells us that the present system is not effective.”
Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?”
While easy answers in the nation’s prisons are elusive, Byassee says that fact should not deter us from doing what we can. “All the people behind bars are somebody’s mom, dad, son, daughter, friend,” says Byassee, whose own mother was a prisoner. “I can’t forget that. But as Christians, we have an even more compelling reason not to keep our vast prison population out of sight and out of mind.”
Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”(Matthew 25:31-46)
Stan Guthrie is freelance writer, editor, speaker, and teacher, and a Christianity Today editor at large. He and his wife, Christine, and their three children live near Chicago.
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