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During the past several weeks, I have been called numerous times to minister to different inmates in the Benton County Jail. All of them were men who had committed different crimes and were being punished accordingly. However, I would like to point out that none of these men fit the image normally perceived by people as being prisoners. They looked just like anyone else you might meet on the street or in the supermarket.

I well remember being escorted through the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., a number of years ago. My escort, one of the guards I had come to know, introduced me to a middle-aged man and we had a nice conversation. When we left, my friend asked me what I thought of the guy. Believing him to be one of the guards, I replied that he seemed like a nice guy with a good sense of humor. Then, I was informed that he was an inmate serving a life sentence for murder. It seems the guards wear blue uniforms and the inmates wear gray ones. However, they must wash them together and by the time someone like me observes them, there is little if any difference in color. They all looked alike to me.

Most of the people in our prisons are not hardened criminals; they are men and women who have found themselves running with the wrong crowd, getting into drugs and alcohol, and then making some kind of stupid mistake by breaking the law. And, just like that, they find themselves locked up in either a jail or a prison.

One of the axioms in our society is the idea that the greater the crime, the greater the punishment, as if the severity of the punishment is justified and somehow serves as a deterrent to anyone else contemplating the same kind of criminal activity. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Study after study has indicated that the severity of the punishment does not deter others from breaking the law. Life sentences and the death penalty have not dissuaded other criminal-minded people from committing the same crimes. Of course, violent people and others determined to hurt or kill people should be sent to prison, but what about all of the others?

Knowing that serving time in a jail might be a wake-up call for an individual, I usually take the opportunity to encourage any inmate I encounter to take advantage of any programs that are being offered to help them prepare for their release; and to challenge them to find people and organizations in their community that will assist them instead of causing them to fall back into the lifestyle that got them into prison in the first place. It seems to me that our focus on those in prison should be to help them get out and become responsible citizens, not upon their punishment for the crimes they have committed.

To that end, many prisons in our country offer religious training, educational courses leading to completing high school or college, opportunities to learn a trade, and courses in how to make it in society without breaking the law. These efforts may open the doors of opportunity for anyone incarcerated to become a good citizen. Arkansas has one of the highest recidivism (getting out of prison and then returning) rates in the country (52 percent), very likely because our prisons have focused upon punishments and not rehabilitation.

I'm sure that not many people know it, but our own Sheriff Shawn Holloway has instituted some positive programs with the Benton County Jail inmates. Utilizing the services of a master gardener, they have created a significant garden on the south side of the jail. I don't know exactly what they do with the food they produce, but I do know that they are producing a lot of it and feeling good about it. Sheriff Holloway also is planning other activities for the future, and he is to be given credit for his efforts to help inmates become productive citizens.

Consider the alternative. Someone is sentenced to a long prison term and then sent off to prison. What are they going to do? Prison life really isn't all that punitive. You get three good meals a day, a place to sleep and someone to oversee your responsibilities. All you have to do is be there while we taxpayers pick up the bill for operating more prisons per capita than any other country in the world. It's no wonder that some of the worst gangs in the United States operate in our large prisons, this despite attempts to prevent it from happening.

Have you noticed how Jesus talked about praying for people less fortunate and setting the prisoners free (see Luke 4:18)? We pray for one another, those around us in need, and our country; perhaps it is time to also pray for the people in our jails and prisons who deserve another chance. Since we are all sinners, it is only by the grace of God that any or all of us are not in prison.

• • •

Robert Box is the former chaplain for the Bella Vista Police Department and is currently the fire department chaplain. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

Religion on 09/05/2018

Print Headline: Most should be given another chance

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