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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, April 04 2024

What I learned in jail

I worked for the Department of Corrective Services for over three years teaching art as a part-time teacher. It was not like teaching workshops or in a school. Prisoners are not children. Nor do they play by the rules -- unless they like you, or are particularly interested in the course you are teaching.

by Mavis Miller (Stucci)

Jail is a way of life for many inmates. That, and drugs. It's not a great life. Yet one habitual offender told me, "Jail is not so bad, miss. You get a decent feed and you get to meet the brothers again." Another told me he couldn't cope on the outside, so he robbed a bank to get back in. "I just threw the money about," he said, "and people were grabbing it all around me. I'm glad to be back."

The system isn't corrective, and the recidivism rate is very high. Those who do rehabilitate have a strong desire to change their life focus, widen their perspectives, use their opportunities and run with it. It's not easy, but they win in the end and I salute them.

Others, on the other hand, learn how to manipulate the system, seeking out the corruptible in order to satisfy their own agendas and solving problems according to their own rules -- the same rules that got them into jail in the first place. They don't care who it hurts. These individuals are notorious for self-justification (even to the extent of believing their own lies) and they have awesome egos.

The rest keep their heads down and try not to be noticed. If they're lucky, they get through without too many bashings. The jail culture is like a violent village. Many inmates are related, and keep to their ethnic group if it's large enough. Everyone keeps up-to-date on crime reports and is well aware of what's happening -- even in other jails.

If I thought about the crimes my students had committed, I found it difficult to relate to them. I learned it was better to just accept them as they are when I was with them. There will be a day when they will repent and be redeemed to a relationship with God. I learned many years ago that, in terms of eternity, this life is less than a breath. Wasted lives are in direct contrast to the hope and joy for the future God gives us in the Bible and through His Holy Days, which remind us that God's plan for humanity is indeed all inclusive.

Somebody asked me what I learned from this experience. After I had thought about it a bit, I realized I was learning not to be complacent about my life, but to use it as fully and wisely as I could, while fighting my shortcomings. One of the obvious things about jail, particularly with inmates, was the misery of wasted lives. In Scripture "waste" is translated from several Hebrew words that mean, literally: desolation, spoiling, destruction (Zephaniah 1:15; Isaiah 59:7), vanity, futility and ruin (Genesis 1:2; Isaiah 45:18).

Tim (not his real name) was an example of a wasted life. He was one of my students. One day he came to class early and while we waited for the others, he said, "Do you know what I did for my 46-cents-per-hour today? I folded cardboard cartons!" He shook his head and I watched his eyes fill with tears. The previous week he'd cleaned hair out of reconditioned shavers and depilatory tools destined for resale as "specials." "I actually hid behind a carton and cried," he continued. "We should be building house parts for poor people -- or growing hardwood seedlings for plantations to save logging rainforests, or vegetables for soup kitchens!" He put his face in his hands and raged.

Tim was studying for a degree when he was arrested for a murder he'd committed 10 years earlier. The jury had wept for him and asked for clemency, but the judge, horrified at the killing of a pedophile by such a savage boy, declared that an example had to be made. Tim's appeal looked promising, but who can restore his lost innocence or the years he had wasted in jail or the destruction of so much of his potential?

There are too many wasted lives, too much potential destroyed by, at times, outright ignorance, but mostly by outright sin. In this world the loss seems permanent, but God has other plans. There is a world to come and a time of redemption described in the prophecies of the Bible.

My experience in jail made me very aware that I must not resist God's guidance in favor of justifying my own way. I have to ask myself, if I am using the resources God gives me, or wasting or abusing them? No Christian can afford to squander energies, talents, gifts of the Spirit or time that ought to be spent in prayer or study or fasting or any other offerings dedicated to God.

Prison made me very aware that Jesus exhorted us to work while it is day (John 9:4). Harvesters don’t waste the last hours of daylight, they work their hardest as the day comes to an end. The night has not yet come for us, and we need to keep working on ourselves and be a light to this dying world. If we waste our opportunity now, how shall we be judged when Christ returns? What opportunities will we have let go where we could have benefited others (Luke 19:11-27)?

Let us work with all that we've been given to use, wasting nothing, so that when we stand before Christ we will be invited to take part in God's great plan for humanity by helping to restore others to God's way of life. It's something to look forward to.