Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 51:12-16) transports me to the 5E block of the Buncombe County Detention Facility, where members of Ecclesia Baptist hold a regular Bible study every Monday evening with 10 of the inmates. My friend and fellow Ecclesia member Dennis was the motivator and inspiration behind this ministry. He had been a resident of 5E himself several years prior, before serving some time in prison, and knows firsthand the importance of jail ministry. Aside from Bible study and prayer, there is some time for chit chat and relationship building, and among the regular topics during this time is the quality of the food. Dennis remembers the fare, and how he and his fellow residents would make creative alterations to the cuisine served. One of his favorites was the Jailhouse Burrito. Here’s the recipe as he describes it: You take your oodles of noodles soup, and crumble in a bag of Fritos from the commissary. Also mix in some of the sausage-like meat product from the breakfast tray, put all that back in the chip bag, and roll it up in your jump suit, where it stays overnight. The next day, you take out the bag, and the mixture will have congealed into a burrito-like texture, much more agreeable to the palate than any of the ingredients as originally offered up. Another favorite was the birthday cake. You save up Oreos, remove the creamy filling and set it aside, crumble up the cookies and put them back into the bag. Then, pour some of the hot water used for the oodles of noodles into the bag, mix it into a batter, and roll it up again in the jumpsuit overnight. The next day, it will have formed into a cake. You use the creamy inside you’ve set aside for the icing, and voilà, behind the iron bars of a dull and dreary place, some lucky inmate will have something resembling a birthday cake to celebrate another year of living. Iron Chef, eat your heart out.
As entertaining as my friend Dennis can be in recounting stories like these, he will be the first to agree with the inmates there that life can get pretty terrifying and depressing and oppressive behind bars. The quality of the bread is the least of their worries, when push comes to shove. The prophet Isaiah must have engaged in some prison ministry, for he seems to have understood pretty well the terror of prison life. And like a good chaplain or visiting minister, he is there to give the inmates an encouraging word from the Lord. The Spirit of God, he says, provides comfort and courage to those who live in constant terror every day, under the wrath of oppressive keepers who seem bent on destruction. The prophet proclaims a defiant hope, saying that the cowering prisoner will soon be set free and will not die in lockdown or seg. Nor, he says, will they lack bread. And knowing the cuisine of the Comforter, it won’t be a jailhouse burrito.
It seems our prison system is more and more coming under the control of those bent on destruction, not rehabilitation. And it has to do with bread, but not the kind of bread baked in the prison oven or rolled up in an inmate’s jumpsuit. It is controlled by bread, aka dough, aka money. The past thirty years has seen a sea-change when it comes to prison policy, due to the influx of lobbying money leading to the privatization of prisons and a system that profits from more prisoners serving longer sentences. The lobbying firm Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is a leading contributor to the Gulag society, investing millions of dollars in the privatization of prisons. Its lobbying counterpart, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) funnels millions into the creation of corresponding policies that lead to massively increased numbers of incarcerated folk. There’s a lot of bread to be made from people bent on destruction instead of rehabilitation; CCA and ALEC have yielded quite a return on their lobbying investments; since their advent thirty years ago the US has seen a 500% increase in the number of incarcerated citizens. Now we have over 2 million people cowering under the terrors of life behind iron bars, with less hope than my friend Dennis had for penitence and rehabilitation and for mercy triumphing over judgment in the system. Some of them will occasionally have the opportunity to hear a chaplain or visiting minister come in and read Isaiah’s promise to them, planting some sacred subversion into their heads and hearts – Where is the wrath of the oppressor? The cowering prisoner will soon be set free. . . and they will not lack bread. Lord haste the day.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on FB, Google+, Twitter, etc.