Saturday morning I covered the Wiregrass Festival in Reidsville for work and true to form, I got lost leaving to head home. I went east, instead of west, and ended up out on Highway 147 outside Reidsville city limits.
If you’re not familiar with Reidsville, it is home to two of Georgia’s prisons: Georgia State Prison – a maximum security facility and former home to the electric chair for Georgia – and Rogers State Prison – a medium security prison with just under 1,500 male inmates. Both are visible from the highway, but there is nothing to see.
The large white stone sign on Wikipedia is nothing like the real life image. Surrounded by high, sharp fences, the outdoor areas were a dusty brown. The brick was faded and even the sidewalks on the outside were dilapidated. Guard towers in every corner shadowed the buildings and the grounds. The parking spots for the Warden and just about every powerful position below him were vacant, and even though it was a humid 85 degrees outside, the premises just looked cold. It’s nothing like you see in the movies.
It was upsetting and brought tears to my eyes. If it’s this ugly and dingy on the outside, what is it like on the inside? I was upset for the *one* person I personally know to be in there wrongfully. I was upset for everyone who has been in there after a wrongful conviction – or even serving time for a crime without a victim. I was even upset for the ones that are guilty – “the monsters.”
Before we go any further, this isn’t an anti-prison post. I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. I am not anti-punishment. I believe in a justice system – maybe not ours – but I believe we should have one. I think there should be a system of restitution, but as it currently operates, I don’t believe our system is one of reformation. There are dangerous people in the world and laws are in place to handle them. Prison shouldn’t be a cake walk. It shouldn’t be luxurious with high-thread count sheets and delicious foods and personal trainers. It should, however, be used sparingly.
But I want to know when we decided we wanted to forget these people and why we stopped praying for these people? When did we start saying “Hooray!” when someone’s life is changed because they chose not to make good decisions or are incapable of doing so? We all want beautiful communities filled with wonderful people and souls as good as ours. Does prison accomplish that? For some, the punishment probably isn’t nearly harsh enough, for others, it changes the course of their lives forever. Should we revel in that?
Not far from the beautiful sprawling farmland and the quaint downtowns of Small Town America are people we are ignoring as part of our society. We place them out on a county road to pretend it isn’t happening. No one has to see it. No one has to hear it. No one has to think about it. And we do it in the name of justice. On a Saturday, the small parking lot sits half empty because even the family members of some of these inmates have forgotten them.
Yes, the Bible tells us “an eye for an eye, but it also tells us much about our enemies – and many consider the prison population to be our enemies, across the board terrible. In Acts 7: 60 – And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” and Philippians 2:3-4 – Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
It didn’t used to be like this. We’ve always believed in punishment, yes, but we didn’t find it heartwarming or rewarding to watch someone be locked away. What’s changed? Surprisingly, it’s society – not the victims. If you turn on the television, forgiveness and compassion are overflowing. The families of the victims of the Charleston Church shooting were publicly offering forgiveness within days of the massacre and that doesn’t seem to be uncommon. It’s us – the regular people – that are the problem.
The criminal justice system will not see any reform until perception changes on the outside – and that starts with you and me. It’s interesting: the description of Georgia State Prison says renovations and expansions have taken place because of the “growing crime rate,” but the only thing that’s grown is the number of things we’ve made punishable by prison time. We’ve allowed that.
There will always be terrible people in this world and many of them belong in prison for their crimes. No one can deny that. But just because they belong there doesn’t mean we should banish them from our hearts and minds forever. That’s what leads to social injustice…for everyone.