Writing in Sojouorners magazine (In the prison-industrial complex, is there hope for redemption?), Nancy Hastings Sehested, a Baptist minister and prison chaplain, describes a North Carolina maximum-security prison this way:
Colorful flowers mark the path to the gatehouse. Then the stripping away begins in earnest. It is a gray day every day in this prison. Gray walls, gray floors, and gray ceilings. The gray uniforms worn by the men can fade their faces into obscurity. The blue uniforms of the staff can create the same effect. Holding a gaze is crucial in seeing the person beyond the clothing. A simple “hello” can seem like a subversive act in a place where everyone is defined by role.
Now I know that prisons are not meant to be “cushy” places, and that justice — at least in part — is about punishment and the deserved forfeiture of rights and privileges. Nevertheless, after reading Sehested’s description, I found myself wondering what gray on gray on gray does to the human soul?
In creating a lifeless and colorless and despair-inducing environment, what do we hope to accomplish? It seems to me that such an environment would readily foster nihilistic thoughts and desperate acts and a soul-killing sense of resignation, hopelessness, and resentment.
I know what the colors and scents of a garden can do for my soul. I know how stepping outside and watching the ebb and flow of tree limbs in the wind or hearing the chatter of birds or taking my dog for a walk in the early morning sunlight can lift my spirits.
Justice — at least in part — is also about rehabilitation and restoration, and it seems to me that those things that can lift spirits and renew a love for life and restore a sense of beauty could provide invaluable aid in turning inmates lives around. I am no corrections expert, but I don’t see how we make a man or woman more human or more hospitable by sequestering them in an inhuman and inhospitable environment.
Within those prison walls, we literally have a captive audience. What a teaching opportunity! What an opportunity — not to confirm the fatalistic notion that the spoils go to the strongest and the “baddest” — but to show another way to measure value, another way to enjoy beauty, another way to satisfy the longings of the human soul. Only God can finally satisfy those longing, but it is the colors and scents and textures and vistas of all of creation that point us to God.
Maybe colorful flowers should mark the paths inside the prison walls, too …