Thursday, July 05, 2018
Despair in the Hole
Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’
Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
This morning I listened to the news report about the suicide of a 31-year-old man, Chris Sutton, in Her Majesty's Prison (HMP) in John's Newfoundland. I'm not sure of the details (I was multi-tasking) but it sounds as though he was in solitary confinement and that he had written to the Human Rights Commission about the deplorable conditions which included being locked in a confined space with the lights on relentlessly and no opportunities to be outside or exercise.
The vice-chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, Kim Mackay, says it was heartbreaking to receive the letter from Sutton. She says not having sufficient access to legal and medical services amounts to a denial of basic human rights.
These stories about the deaths of inmates are tragic and tend to come and go with little more than passing public interest. For many these are criminals, bad people, who are in prison for doing bad things. Mistreatment doesn't sit well with most of us, yet we probably are less concerned about the fate of prisoners than the rest of society.
Coincidentally, a short time after hearing this report I was online looking to see the schedule of tours for the decommissioned Kingston Penitentiary. We would like to go through this legendary institution, in part because Ruth has never been there despite growing up in Kingston but also because I went there five days a week for several months in the summer on 1979. I was a 24-year-old chaplain intern and during my time there I was assigned to solitary confinement -- The Hole -- as the focus of my daily visiting rounds.
Replica of a solitary confinement cell in Kingston Penitentiary
Seeing that the tours included solitary confinement brought back a flood of memories. I saw the desperation of inmates firsthand, and dealt with the aftermath of self-harm attempts. I remember visiting an OPP officer who had been convicted of a serious crime and was being held in a confinement cell at the end of the range so that other inmates couldn't figure out who he was. He was waiting to be taken to another out-of-province institution in the hope that it would help conceal his identity. Discovering that he was a cop would likely be a death sentence.
I vowed that I would never forget the bleak realities of prison life but the decades have rolled by and memory fades. Yet when I read the New Testament I'm reminded that John the Baptist, Jesus, the apostle Paul, all "did time," even though their imprisonments were unjust. And come to think of it, Mohandes Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were jailed as well.
MLK in Birmingham Jail April 1963
God be with those who are on the brink of despair in prisons around the world -- including children -- whether they have been found guilty of crimes or are detained unlawfully. Show us how to respond with awareness and compassion.