When the preacher carries keys

Black and white photo of group of people with outstretched arm in the forefront

Sean Kernan

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 4, "Still Life: Inside Southern Prisons." Find more from that issue here.

In North Carolina prisons there is a phenomenon known as “the Christmas rush,” in which selected prisoners with only a few months left on their sentences are released early, a week or so before Christmas. It is intended as a gesture of good will in keeping with the season. Last December, because there was no one else to pick him up, I waited outside the prison gates for one beneficiary of this practice. A while back Harry had been briefly and unsuccessfully paroled. Harry is an alcoholic, and his inability to control his drinking quickly led to his return to prison. Except for this short-lived experiment in freedom, Harry had been behind bars for 17 years. When he came out, he wore a used suit and had 20 dollars in his pocket. The suit and the money, and a perfunctory phone call to me, were the state’s sole offers of assistance to Harry at the time of his release. 

As he got in my car Harry had difficulty with the seat belt. He knew what a seat belt was; he had seen them on TV. But he had never actually fastened one. His nervous grappling symbolized his whole condition: no job, no place to go, almost no money, not even a change of clothes, no friends, virtually no contacts, trying to reconnect with a world changed nearly beyond recognition. 

The authorities did not free Harry; they abandoned him. 

Something more than bureaucratic indifference and lack of foresight lies behind this incident, for the state’s announced motive was one of generosity and compassion. The authorities were not content merely to set Harry adrift; they appealed to the name and spirit of Christmas to uphold their action. Christians, at least, have cause to wonder just what twisted interpretation of Christmas inspired the state in this instance. And everyone else may justly wonder why these selfsame Christians allowed it to happen: why the church allows the state to appropriate its most sacred occasions, symbols and offices to justify such callous actions. 

This is not a new question. Nearly two centuries ago church representatives suggested confinement as a humane alternative to brandings, forced amputations and other tortures. The modern penitentiary came into being, and the church has been involved with prisons ever since. Then and now that involvement has been marked by an inconsistency of motives and by widespread moral confusion. 

Consider prison chaplains. Perhaps nine-tenths of all full-time chaplains are employed by the state. They work for their respective departments of correction. Just like the wardens and the guards. Only someone grossly unacquainted with the tensions of prison life could regard this as a circumstance conducive to ministry. Confidentiality — important in any pastoral relationship, but especially so in a setting where trust is almost non-existent and distrust is a survival virtue — is compromised from the outset. Many prisoners open their first encounter with a chaplain with the words, “Who do you work for? Who pays your salary?” The answer to these questions determines the depth of interaction that can be achieved later on. Other prisoners never approach a chaplain because they already know the answer to these questions. 

Representing the church, the chaplain has the chance to maintain a uniquely independent stance: neither prisoner nor guard. Instead, many chaplains eagerly define themselves as part of the prison’s overall “correctional” strategy. But prisons are not “correctional institutions”; they are merely prisons. When the chaplains combine the correctional and pastoral vocabularies and come up with designations like “correctional community” for institutions that are riddled with violence, fear and scorn, they commit themselves to concealment of truth. 

In a setting where body language — “how you carry yourself” — is an all-important medium of communication, it is bizarre to see chaplains brandishing keys to the institutions they serve. No gesture could disclose more emphatically their solidarity, not with prisoners, but with the system. Those chaplains and other outsiders who have to be locked in and let out surrender themselves, however briefly, to the daily experience of the prisoners themselves. Their movements create a bridge between those behind bars and the world outside. Those chaplains who carry keys reinforce the isolation and abandonment experienced by the prisoners. 

Conditions within prisons tend to suppress hope and awareness. The noise, the overcrowding, the forced idleness, the access to drugs, the racial tension, the ever present television — all these factors reduce the possibilities of self-discovery and cooperation. Chaplains who are oblivious to these conditions, who do not feel they have entered “the valley of the shadow of death” when they step inside the prison, can hardly instruct prisoners in awareness; and the hope they offer will be limited or false. Chaplains who recognize these realities but acquiesce out of a sense of powerlessness, or who actually seek to justify these conditions, have little hope to share with prisoners. Nevertheless, these prison conditions often go unacknowledged at conferences on “correctional ministry.” 

The correctional practice which authorizes such conditions cannot be reconciled with the Gospel. Identifying oneself with the correctional structure and the justice it enforces interferes with pastoral work in basic ways. 

For example, prisoners generally accept responsibility for their crimes, in the sense that they admit that they acted freely, that they could have chosen to do something else. But they may avoid accepting a specifically moral responsibility for their actions by resorting to statements like “What I did was wrong, but so is the system,” or “Who knows what’s right and wrong?” The important thing about these statements is that they transcend the prison setting and attack the notion of law itself. The law is seen as a tool which anyone powerful enough can wield. 

These evasions are credible precisely because they are founded upon concrete instances of manipulation of the law. During the Bert Lance affair, for example, I worked extensively with a young prisoner named Chad. Chad drinks a lot, has a poor employment record and sometimes writes bad checks to get himself out of a bind. While the nation heatedly debated whether Lance’s overdrafts of several hundred thousand dollars constituted a crime, Chad received a four-year sentence for writing $200 worth of bad checks. Chad did not miss the irony of this contrast. To protest that Lance did not “actually” break the law is to duck the issue. The fairness of the law is precisely what is at stake. 


A more complex case in point is the response of white prisoners to NC Governor James Hunt’s Wilmington Ten decision. This response was first shared with me by a prisoner named Roger. He has been competing economically against blacks all his life and cannot see anything inherently more oppressive about their situation than his own. Besides, as he says, slavery ended a long time ago; the blacks are obviously on top now, both economically and politically. Liberal cliches and somber statistics about unemployment among black youth count for little compared to Roger’s personal experience. And his personal experience is constantly reinforced by incidents like Governor Hunt’s handling of the Wilmington Ten. Appearing on statewide television, Hunt informed his viewers he had spent “literally hundreds of hours” studying the case. Lavishly praising the courts, he emphasized the guilt of the defendants and refused to pardon them. But he did reduce their sentences by roughly seven years each. 

What struck Roger is that Hunt stressed the guilt of the Ten and the heinous nature of their crimes, yet drastically reduced their sentences anyway. A lifer himself, Roger cannot understand why the Ten should be singled out for a special reduction, particularly if they are just as guilty as he is. Roger’s answer to this riddle is simple: Hunt buckled under pressure from the black community and its supporters. Though some of his impressions are mistaken, Roger accurately identifies Hunt’s performance as a political expedient. Justice had nothing to do with it. 

Prisoners like Chad and Roger need to accept moral responsibility for their own wrong actions. They need to repent. The law’s failure to embody real justice tends to obstruct this step, first by providing endless opportunities to foist blame off on the system, and then by seeming to render the whole enterprise of ethical reflection fantastical or irrelevant. This leads us toward another way in which the chaplain’s identification with the correctional structure interferes with pastoral work: the justice of God becomes indistinguishable from the justice represented by the prison system. 

This emerges very poignantly in a confession made frequently by prisoners: “It is God’s will that I am here in prison.” The unspoken conclusion of this statement is a resigned: “... and God is not here with me.” The whole arbitrary system is viewed as an expression of God’s justice, which is thus completely separated from God’s love and forgiveness. 

A truly alert church would recognize the practical and theological contradictions inherent in a state-employed chaplaincy and would move to assign its prison ministers independently. It would relinquish its keys and other emblems of the chaplain’s identification with the correctional structure, and it would vigorously preserve the two pastoral initiatives most conducive to solidarity with prisoners: confidentiality and the freedom to criticize the system. It is distressing to see many instances where the church is basically unwilling to minister to the imprisoned unless state funds are forthcoming. 


The issue is not so much the abolition of state-employed chaplaincies as the renewal of the church. Chaplains who draw their salaries from the church do not, as an automatic result, bring greater discernment or integrity to their work. The change will have only a symbolic effect unless, at the same time, the church moves beyond the relatively individualized “chaplaincy” toward community-based “ministry.” 

The difference in these two terms lies in the relative elitism of the former. “Chaplaincy” denotes a trained professional, or at best a team of trained professionals, whereas “ministry,” at its broadest and best, signifies the various callings to service given to all Christians. The bureaucratization of these various callings by the modern church has transformed its common members into spectators, so to speak, of their faith: their main function is to contribute money for the upkeep of the bureaus. In the case of ministry to prisoners, however, the reversal of this process lies within the grasp of local communities. There will never be an adequate number of professional chaplains, and virtually every community has a jail or prison nearby. Local churches should band together and establish a presence, in strength, at every jail and prison within reach. As many outside volunteers should be involved as the authorities will tolerate. Chaplains should devote themselves to the training and supervision of such volunteers. 

Such a ministry can begin to thrust against the contours of prison life: racial and sexual tension, ignorance, idleness, loneliness. Many prisoners need the witness of a ministry that is specifically interracial and that provides them the opportunity to relate to members of the other sex simply as friends. Prisons are full of individuals whose education was cut short and who now lack confidence in their learning ability, yet who respond eagerly to encouragement and instruction. Prisons generally have “libraries” barely worthy of the name and badly in need of replenishing. In most prisons a high proportion of the populace is idle. A host of activities might be encouraged — in art, music, physical fitness, to name only a few areas. Correspondence and visitation programs can help the many prisoners who rarely if ever receive a letter or a visit. No community ministry will ever “improve” a prison enough to eliminate its harsh conditions. For these conditions are what the prison is all about. They will be eliminated only when prisons are abolished. But the abolition of prisons is a process to which a community ministry makes a distinct contribution. 

The function of prisons, after all, is to separate individuals from the community, to hold them in a state of isolation and abandonment, to render them invisible to the larger world. Even the smallest gestures of kindness or trust, regardless of the timidity or lack of discernment with which they are undertaken, strike at the root of this function. Every time a volunteer sits down on a prisoner’s bunk or pulls up a chair in the prison mess hall, the prisoner feels less isolated and abandoned. And for the volunteer the bars and locks and masonry become more and more incongruous, even ludicrous. Gradually a community arises of people who are unafraid of contact with prisoners, who do not need or want to be “protected,” and who recognize that imprisonment is largely destructive of the ends it presumably means to serve. In this context the Biblical word most often used to describe ministering to prisoners — "visit” — takes on rare power, for it signifies this task of simply setting at nought the whole strategy of imprisonment. 

The “theology of retribution,” which provides a cheap religious rationale for the condemnation directed against prisoners today, must be dismantled. The church must rediscover that every human being is created in the image of God, with rights that must be respected and gifts that should be nurtured; that forgiveness is the highest form of Christian love and the key to reconciliation; and that Christ is to be found among the suffering, specifically among the imprisoned. For at present, many prisoners experience the realities of God’s love and forgiveness in spite of the church. 

Certainly the prison poses a wide-ranging moral challenge to the church. Others engaged in this struggle may think the church an improbable ally, but, as the Scriptures somewhat ironically promise, “nothing is impossible with God.”