I’ve spent the last couple of years thinking about prison. I have a cousin who is serving his second stint, and it often breaks my heart. While I don’t mean to exonerate him, I still can’t help but feel as though something is wrong with the way he’s been treated.
I do think those who break the law should be given a consequence, I just also happen to think that the consequence should be relevant. Putting someone in prison is almost never related to the actual crime. But what else is there to do?
Dietrich Bonheoffer, who spent the last years of his life in prison, wrote out some ideas he had during World War II to create a better justice system:
I think a lengthy confinement is demoralizing in every way for most people. I’ve been thinking out an alternative penal system on the principle of making the punishment fit the crime; e.g., for absence without leave, the cancelling of leave; for unauthorized wearing of medals, longer service at the front; for robbing other soldiers, the temporary labelling of a man as a thief; for dealing in the black market, a reduction of rations; and so on.
Bonheoffer’s ideas obviously pertain to wartime. So the question becomes, how do we make this work today? I don’t really know. Some crimes are indeed heinous, some kinds of evil to much to simply “repay.” And what of the death penalty? An eye for an eye? No, I could never endorse that. When I was younger, my self-righteousness couldn’t see why a person shouldn’t be deprived of their life if they had taken the life of someone else. I was having an arrogant rant one night when my pastor at the time said, “everyone deserves God’s grace.” I hadn’t ever thought about it quite like that. Tommy went on to talk about how killing someone is taking away any chance they may have at discovering God’s redemptive power. The idea took some time to sink in, but it is a lesson I have never forgotten.
That of course, only complicates the concept of eliminating prison. How can you make a punishment relevant to murder? I don’t know. Public servitude to the victim’s family? I don’t know if that would work. Going Germanic and instating a wergild, or man price? I don’t think money will really soothe someone’s wounds of loss. And let’s face it, some people have enough money to really take advantage of a system like that.
Ultimately, I don’t know of an adequate alternative. but I know the system we have now is not sufficient. Bonheoffer goes on to ask,
Why does the Old Testament law never punish anyone by depriving him of his freedom?
I think its a question worth looking at. I’m not saying we should adopt the Old Testament law. Surely though, a system designed to reflect God’s desire for justice has some truth to teach us? And if God didn’t see fit to deprive an individual of their freedom, why should we? Because its the best we can come up with? I just don’t think that’s acceptable.