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Jesus Behind Bars

"Prison changes a man". Except, it seems, it all-too-often doesn't. Research reported in this 2010 article, for example, found reconviction rates of 70% or more in 14 UK prisons. Here's not to dwell on the statistics though -- they can be misrepresentative and/or misrepresented and besides I've no desire to get drawn into the science or politics of the prison system. Suffice to say, the seemingly well-established fact is that incarcerating a troubled (drug dependent? alcoholic? mentally ill? socially marginalised? embittered? abused? self-deceiving? desperate? unemployable?) person is unlikely to relieve them of their troubled state and may well serve to exacerbate and further entrench the patterns of damaging behaviour that got them in there in the first place.

Enter Gordon Ramsay. *Sigh*. Channel 4's 'Gordon Behind Bars' is the latest in a string of 'famous chefs solve major societal problems' campaigns, and, for all its good intentions, my (admittedly ignorant) impression is it's pretty ill-conceived. Perhaps in an attempt to placate multiple audiences, the program seems to be offering two rapidly alternating perspectives on the problem and on what it's trying to acheive. One minute it's all about exacting reparation from undeserving criminals ("each of these prisoners is costing the British economy £38,000 a year -- it's time they were made to give something back") the next it's all about correcting a prison system which is failing vulnerable inmates (Gordon's noisy bluster and disapproval in the face of circumstances presumably far more complex than he is willing to acknowledge was particularly wearying to watch). If it wasn't for the famous name and the TV cameras I doubt it would have stood much of a chance with either objective. The scheme (an in-prison kitchen, supplying national chains with a single product) appears to me at least to be on fairly shaky ground. As a money-making venture, it seems highly implausible that the cost and awkwardness of facilitating such a project in the long term will ever be (meaningfully) out-weighed by the profit it brings in (for example, every single cake that leaves the prison has to be x-rayed). And actually, the prisoners it is best suited to are the least troubled, who will most likely be in for the shortest sentences so that turnover is high and re-training a constant (again, costly) program. As a 'turn your life around' venture it doesn't strike me as particularly groundbreaking or aspirational -- mass producing a single product day-in day-out is not going to turn them into chefs.

Of course, reality TV being what it is, the story that plays out is more-or-less one of "success against the odds". And Gordon, for all his naive, outsider pronouncements on the prison system, delivers a touching dose of passion and concern, even finding a job in one of his restaurants to (sadly, unsuccessfully) help a 9-months-clean drug user stay clean after leaving the prison. The guys seem grateful and well-meaning in their talk of what the program has done for them, but I saw little evidence of the type of fundamental shift in perspective, renewal of hope, and bestowment of long-term resources that it must surely take to reverse ingrained habits and broken mindsets. Of course, I could well be (and really hope I am) wrong on this, but I speak from personal experience -- not of crime, but of plenty of damaged thought/behaviour patterns.[1] Even now there's stuff that repeatedly trips me up -- I can pray about it, or share it with Christian friends, and generally produce all sorts of 'talk' about changing and 'laying it down' and then, minutes later, find myself flat on my face (figuratively speaking) all over again. It is, well, hard not to hate myself in those moments.

I really do believe in grace though, and I really have seen (/ am seeing) substantial amounts of stuff change; if can happen for me it can happen for anyone. In real life we don't have the cameras on us, we don't have the temporary presence of a famous person to awe us into good behaviour, we don't have the machinations of a production team steering us towards the best 'story' for the show, and we don't have someone to go back and edit out any footage that doesn't fit that story. And neither do prisoners, normally. Something bigger is needed for change, and change, when it occurs, is something bigger.

So, the other day in church we watched a video-testimony (cos we're so hip and with-it with our multimedia and our Coldplay-style worship songs [2]) of this guy called
Darrell Tunningley, who had become a Christian whilst in prison for armed robbery. Prior to his sentence, he was a heroin addict, a dealer, and involved in all manner of violent crime. He talks about his continued violence in prison and about going on an Alpha course (classic) for the free biscuits and the time off work. But he found himself paying increasing attention, and the attitude of the two nuns leading the course and the things they were teaching began to make him think. And then, as he put it, 'something clicked'. To quote:
I sat there on my bed and I picked up the pamphlet again and I looked at the Sinner’s Prayer again and it still didn’t make sense to me. So I sat there and said my own version. It’s not one I’ll repeat because it had a few swear words in it, but the gist of it was: ‘God if you’re real, prove it. I’ve tried to stop with the drugs, I’ve tried to stop with the violence. Nothing I do works.  If you’re real, prove it. Take away my drug addiction, take away all this anger that’s inside me and if you do that for me, I’ll live the rest of my life for you’. And that was it. There was no bright lights, no shaking cell door, no visitations from angels... I just went to bed.But when I woke up the next morning, a series of weird events started to happen. I’d always make a roll-up smoke before I went to bed and leave it next to my bunk. Then, as soon as I woke up, I’d roll over and smoke it in bed. But this morning I woke up and went to roll over as a default reaction but the thought of touching the cig made me feel physically sick – really, really ill – and I started to freak out. I got the cig and I threw it out of the cell window and then I got my tobacco and I threw that out the cell window and as soon as I’d done that, I started to feel better. Usually in the mornings as well, I’d also smoke a joint. I had some weed in my cell, but as soon as the thought popped into my head, I started to feel sick again.  So I got the weed and I threw that out of the window too, and as soon as I’d done it, I stopped feeling sick. Then I started to notice something really odd. I went to get a wash and a shave and I looked in the mirror and I almost couldn’t recognise the reflection because I was smiling –  not just smiling, but beaming [...] And from that day, I haven’t touched drugs, I haven’t smoked, I haven’t drunk, I haven’t had a fight...Within a couple of weeks of that day, I was in the chapel speaking, trying to tell as many people as I possibly could what had happened to me. 
OK, so prison 'conversions' are a well-established and oft-mocked phenomena. (What prison film would be complete without the 'born-again religious nut' stereotype). I can see fuel a-plenty for skepticism. I did a little research into what secular social psychology has to say -- granted one academic paper does not a literature review make, but at least this one ("Why God Is Often Found Behind Bars: Prison Conversions and the Crisis of Self-Narrative", Maruna et al, 2006 [pdf]) is freely available online so that my imaginarily enthusiastic readers can link to it themselves.

The research comprises qualitative analysis of 75 interviews with (Christian) 'convict converts'. It talks a lot of dispassionate sense, about conversion as a re-writing of personal narrative in the face of identity crisis, worldview challenge, and plenty of time to think. (Forgive, and feel free to correct, my highly non-expert precis). "
The framework of Christianity provides the master story that allows [the] individual to “read” the world again." (p167)

The upshot of the paper is that Christian conversion 'works', in that it produces genuine positive change in the lives of prisoners going into the future. The authors cite five mechanisms by which this is achieved -- to quote, it: 

  • Creates a new social identity to replace the label of prisoner or criminal.
  • Imbues the experience of imprisonment with purpose and meaning.
  • Empowers the largely powerless prisoner by turning him into an agent of God.
  • Provides the prisoner with a language and framework for forgiveness.
  • Allows a sense of control over an unknown future. (p174)
Granting, then, the 'efficacy' of conversion, the obvious next question is, well, why does it work? One's answer to this must inevitably depend on the pre-suppositions one brings to the evidence.

It is possible (as the authors demonstrate) to frame the process purely in social and psychological terms, triggered by
 a crisis of 'self-narrative' as the things by which the prisoners have hitherto defined and reassured themselves are removed. "Being imprisoned can cause individuals to see the fragility of the web of meaning they previously took for granted. This realization can lead to reflection on issues of existence, life, and death, which are usually bracketed from everyday consideration." (p169) Theoretically (the authors state) new prisoners are most susceptible to religious ideologies in these early days -- however, they concede that this was not the experience of the majority of their sample, who rather 'came to religion' often after some time or in a second, third, or later sentence (p170). Moreover, Christianity was not, in general, merely the first fine-sounding argument to reach the converts' ears, nor was it the result of targeted proselytising of the most vulnerable. Rather, the response of faith was frequently the culmination of thoughtful and broad consideration:
"Initially it was a case of me trying to come to terms with it internally, and err that involved for me reading, fringe reading, not the Bible, [but] metaphysics and mysticism—not mysticism err the clairvoyants, mystics kind of thing you know—and err trying to make some sense out of life and death and err the purpose of it all." (p174)
"It wasn’t a religion thing, it was a personal quest if you like, a journey. . . . I’ve read Freud, I’ve read Jung. . . . Some of them made sense. . . . I realised that I’d got to look at everything that was available basically, so that’s how I came round to, you know, to sort of God." (p174)
Interesting that it's not just a case of 'any port in a storm'. Why is it the Bible that, of all the available options, finally connects in that transformational way? ("If there’s anything I’m stressed out about I just ... start reading the Bible from where I finished off. And ... there’s always something that no matter what bit you read, there’s always something in there that’s relevant to how you’re feeling at the time, no matter what bit I read of it." (p167)) The Christian answer -- which resonates strongly with me -- is that it's because it's true, and living: 
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
And why is it the promise of forgiveness in Jesus that finally brings powerful release from guilt and shame and allows these prisoners to face the future with a sense of peace and of having been given a clean slate? ("You know, my faith tells me that everyone is a sinner, but everyone can be forgiven to the same extent and ... there’s no kind of levels of forgiveness, you are either forgiven or you’re not, and that everyone can be forgiven subject to acceptance of Jesus into their lives." (p178)) Wish-fulfilment it may sound like, but read the gospels and you begin to see that the claims of Jesus are by no means unsupported by the evidence for the impact of his life, the nature of his death and the reality of his resurrection. If, on evaluation, you judge this evidence admissable, you are left with plenty of reason to take seriously the offer of hope and forgiveness:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)
I posit, then, that prison conversions happen because, once the illusions of worldly security and self-righteousness are stripped away and one has time to think, Christianity turns out to make a surprising amount of sense. And they work in terms of producing transformed lives because, well, Christianity is true (which, please understand, is certainly not the same as saying that Christians are right) and because God (not merely psychology -- although as creator of our minds He works in and through our psychology) provides grace and power to change. 
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
It is a sad thought that the busyness and self-sufficiency of 'free' life should so distract and/or satisfy us that we never question our immediate superficial impression of/interaction with reality; most probably we could all do with being confronted with our failings and brokenness, and being left in solitude with a Bible (and a big pile of other books, why not) and a lot of time to think.

[1] One episode featured an inmate getting angrily abusive over the fact that he had been forced to eat his dinner in the kitchen without access to his ketchup... If ever I was tempted to think myself 'better' than 'these people', all such thoughts were banished; all-too-easily could I picture myself getting into similar strops if denied my beloved ketchup, or if otherwise made to surrender my routine to such interruptions. Even just today, someone came and started an impromptu meeting with me while I was eating my lunch, with no regard for the fact that I was mid-sandwich, and oh! the quiet resentment I harboured all afternoon...

[2] What's wrong with a good old fashioned hymn, rich in theologically-expounding poetry with a rousing melody to boot? Take 'And Can It Be', for a particularly relevant example: "Long my imprisoned spirit lay \\ fast bound in sin and nature's night; \\ thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray; \\ I woke, the dungeon flamed with light! \\ My chains fell off, my heart was free; \\ I rose, went forth, and followed thee." There's a song worth straining your vocal chords for.