What would Jesus say about Tutwiler?

Richard Schmidt Living and Learning
Posted 2/18/14

Anthony Cook of The Birmingham News wrote a column a few days ago containing emails received by the paper about the conditions at Julia Tutwiler State Penitentiary for Women in Wetumpka.

That’s been much in the news lately — male guards …

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What would Jesus say about Tutwiler?

Posted

Anthony Cook of The Birmingham News wrote a column a few days ago containing emails received by the paper about the conditions at Julia Tutwiler State Penitentiary for Women in Wetumpka.

That’s been much in the news lately — male guards leering at women as they use the restrooms or take a shower, food served that is unfit for human consumption, violence and abuse of prisoners by the staff, inmates pressured into performing sex acts for guards. Here are some of the responses to the story received by the newspaper:

“Cry me a river. ‘Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.’ I have managed to obey the law for almost 60 years and I have no compassion for those that choose to do otherwise.”

“If you don’t like prison treatment, note to self: Stay out of trouble. Doing wrong is easy. Knowing you don’t want to get gang raped and tortured in prison is a good deterrent.”

“If you do something that is bad enough to go to prison, then you get what you get, too bad!!!!”

“You expected a country club?”

Some of the authors of those emails probably consider themselves Christians, but I doubt that Jesus considers them Christians.

Jesus commended those who visit prisoners, not those who ignore, demean, or abuse them. Jesus identified with prisoners, saying that when you visit a prisoner, you visit him. He forgave the penitent thief. Jesus was himself arrested and executed. So was his cousin John the Baptist. Both Peter and Paul were imprisoned. You’d think prisoners would be especially dear to any follower of Jesus Christ.

Caring for prisoners is not the same as condoning or overlooking their crimes. Jesus did not overlook wrongdoing, but he loved the wrongdoer.

I visit the G. K. Fountain prison in Atmore once a month to celebrate the mass with the Episcopal inmates there. The conditions at Fountain are not as horrid as those at Tutwiler, but life there is degrading, inhumane, unhealthy and dangerous.

Some of the men I know at G. K. Fountain are guilty of serious crimes; more are guilty of minor offenses such as drug possession. All are children of God, and Jesus identifies with every one of them. Any would-be Christian who thinks he’s better than the least of the least (and that would include prison inmates) should read the 23rd chapter of Matthew, then read the 25th chapter of Matthew, and then take a close look in the mirror.

It’s easy for people like me to dismiss others, and not only the incarcerated. I had all the advantages — wise parents, a good education, challenging work, a decent income, mature friends and a loving marriage. I now enjoy a comfortable retirement living on my pension and savings. It’s tempting to look down on people who lacked those advantages and now have no choice but to depend on the state Department of Corrections — or on Medicaid or food stamps — to stay alive.

I’ve never walked in those people’s shoes. But I have come to know some of them personally, and I can’t dismiss them any longer. In fact, I admire their courage and the way they hang in there against great adversities. I particularly admire those who seek to follow Christ in places where followers of Christ are taunted and belittled.

The temptation isn’t so much to look down on the least of the least as to ignore them, not to think of them at all. We insulate ourselves from them. Some we confine behind prison walls. Others we pass by on elevated freeways with the windows of our air-conditioned cars rolled up. They may as well not exist as far as many of us are concerned. We don’t see them, don’t know them. Out of sight, out of mind.

But Jesus sees the needy, knows them, identifies with them, loves them. He was one of them, with “no place to lay his head,” as the scripture says. And if Jesus were walking the streets of America today, it’s not hard to figure out what he’d say. Probably the same thing he said 2,000 years ago. Some things haven’t changed.

Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, editor and author who lives in Fairhope. He can be reached at courier@gulfcoastnewspapers.com.

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