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By Fr. Dwight Longenecker, is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative
When I visit the prison, I can’t help but compare this ragged group of criminals to the people I deal with outside the razor wire. If prison is the place where one cannot lie to oneself, the world outside the razor wire is where it is nearly impossible not to lie to oneself…
Go to Jail. Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.00.
That ominous Monopoly card and the man peering from behind the bars in the corner of the board echoes in my mind every month when I drive through the South Carolina countryside to celebrate Mass for the inmates at one of our high-security prisons.
In this modern age, the towering walls and barred windows of old-fashioned prisons have been exchanged for tall chain link fences and razor wire. Lots of razor wire. Skeins of razor wire. There are security checks, steel doors, bulletproof glass and inside, men who have committed serious crimes.
Have they abducted, raped, tortured, and killed? Probably. Have they slit a throat, battered a head with a baseball bat, shot, stabbed, and strangled? Have they raped children then chucked them in a ditch to die? I don’t know. I go to minister to them as men and brothers.
We clear the clanging doors and cut across the inner yard. Prisoners in their bulky orange uniforms nod a greeting or wave. We meet in a storage room at the back of the gym, and to get there cross the gym where the young black guys are playing basketball like pros. Some older fellows are playing Monopoly. I tell them the orange properties are the best. They laugh with that instinctive polite reproof that blacks often show to white men. I don’t blame them.
The room where we say Mass is crowded with junk. The ceiling has collapsed because the roof is leaking. The chairs are beat up, but there’s a wooden altar and the guys have prepared it with the linens, the chalice and paten, book, and crucifix.
I am always struck by the down-to-earth niceness of the guys in my small congregation. They seem much like any other parish men’s group. Some young and some old, they’re joking and talking as we come through and set up for Mass. I say a few words about how to find forgiveness. They listen attentively and clearly long to know more about their faith.
I can’t help but compare this ragged group of criminals to the people I deal with outside the razor wire. Whether it’s the latest news headlines or some tale of woe from family, friends or parishioners, it seems that there is just as much darkness outside as in. When talking to the inmates, more than once I’ve said, “We’re all criminals. You’re the ones who were unlucky enough to get caught.” They probably get sick of pious bromides from know-it-alls like me, but they’re respectful.
One of Walker Percy’s characters did a stretch inside and he testifies that prison was good for him because there was no place to hide. He faced himself and his crimes every day. I’m sure there are plenty of prison inmates who remain defiant and without remorse. I’m sure the prison guards will tell us that there are plenty of men inside who still deny their guilt, blame others, and justify their actions. But it must be tougher to do so.
Outside the razor wire, on the other hand, the entire society is one vast conspiracy designed to help us deny our guilt, deflect the charge, blame others, and escape into a whole range of artificial realities. We hide within our manufactured little success stories, our artificial respectability and our unctuous self-righteousness. If prison is the place where one cannot lie to oneself, the world outside the razor wire is where it is nearly impossible not to lie to oneself. Furthermore, the other members of our society expect us to continue the charade.
We must conform to the great, cheerful, artificial success story that is ourselves and our society.
This reveals the true heart of darkness. It is not that we are all criminals, but that we deny our crime, justify our evil, blame others for our own faults, and escape into a make-believe world of our own perfection. Furthermore, we are blind not only to this reaction in ourselves, but we are blind to its pervasive power within our whole society. The last thing the fish sees is the water.
A visit to prison is therefore a salutary thing. I see the prisoners, and I see my brothers. Why do I feel a kindred with Cain? Because I could do what he did and be where he is if it were not for some greater grace. I also feel a kindred with these men because they have repented, and they are free, although they are prisoners. In fact, they are more free in prison than the souls outside who are enslaved in their lives of lies—their false self-image, their artificial self-esteem, and the shiny surface of lives I know are empty lives of quiet desperation.
After one such visit a poem appeared in my mind. Those familiar with England will recognize the “fake English names” as all being HMPs (Her Majesty’s Prisons).
For what it’s worth—I’ll leave you with it.
The Prison Visit
The prison’s in the country on a hill.
You drive past the Baptist churches and schools,
the gated communities and country clubs
with their fake English names: Wormwood Scrubs,
Belmarsh, Channings Wood, Earlstoke, Pentonville.
It’s a place of concrete, steel gates and rules
where each of the inmates is serving time
for some serious anti-social crime.
I drive there on Thursdays to visit guys
who are Catholic and want to see a priest.
Jerry-twenty years. Hank is serving life
for torturing and strangling his wife.
Tom-ten years. Mike will be here ’til he dies.
I preach about the greatest and the least—
people like me who do as we ought,
criminals too, but too smart to get caught.
The guys in prison lived life at full speed
they robbed, raped, killed, did drugs, swore and cursed,
while the men in suits used the law to steal,
screwed a girl, aborted the kid, cut a deal
then went to church and recited the creed.
If the last are first, then the best are the worst
and the smoothest con and most charming liar
is the one outside the razor wire.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is courtesy of Unsplash.