Commentary

Setting the prisoner free, part one

Do you remember from Luke 4:18 (and Isaiah 61:1) the kinds of activities you are to be engaged in when the Spirit of the Lord is upon you? They are things like preaching good news to the poor, giving sight to the blind, setting free the oppressed, and, umm. Hmm. There’s a fourth one. What is it again?

Bob Hulteen

Thank goodness for Google; I just checked. It’s proclaiming freedom for the imprisoned. I was a little ahead of the Sesame Street generation (or maybe North Dakota just didn’t get the show), but I can tell this one is not like the others. Or, at least, it doesn’t feel like the others.

The other activities are about fairness and abundance of life. But, “setting free the captive” appears to require something of me, a change in my worldview — never an easy thing — to include forgiveness and trust in the power of redemption.

Do I really believe that people can change?

Being imprisoned is about having the illusion of control taken away from you. It can be a clarifying experience, especially for people who are used to having their own way. In jail, you don’t call the shots. It is not an experience for the faint of heart.

Should the rehabilitated vote?

In the current political climate, people with “personal connections” to the penal system are at greater risk. The sharper rhetoric than normal means a further diminishment in people’s opportunity to find rehabilitation.

For instance, felons are increasingly becoming one of the foils of the legislature’s Voter ID fight. Because each state has its own laws, and different jurisdictions have different procedures for informing people when and how their voting rights are restored (or not), the system is confusing and creates unnecessary barriers to participation. Plus, it gives the rest of us a chance to demonize people who may want to re-engage society in a positive way … by voting for their political leadership.

Two states — Kentucky and Virginia — impose a lifetime ban on voting for people convicted of a felony. Two other states — Maine and Vermont — never restrict voting rights. There, you carry the obligations of citizenship (without all the privileges, of course) even while serving a sentence in jail.

Minnesota is a state that falls somewhere in between on the continuum. While many states re-instate voting rights once a prisoner is released, in Minnesota voting rights are not restored until the prisoner “finishes paper” (serves out probation).

Simply changing Minnesota’s law to re-instate voting rights at the conclusion of the jail time would offer a cleaner solution. Since an imprisoned person can’t walk into a polling station on election day, it would clear all felon-related confusion. Such a change would eliminate virtually all voter discrepancy in the voter rolls.

Making money by filling jails

I must be worked up now because I haven’t even gotten to the subject I intended to address: private prisons. Many states have recently sold off their prison systems, or have hired outside management, in money-saving efforts.

That means there are people who benefit financially from having a larger prison population. It is in their economic interest not to reform inmates, but instead to encourage recitivism. Truly nothing good can come from this change to the system.

Since there is no more space, readers will have to wait a month for me to fume about private prisons. If you are so inclined, take a look at what the Bible says about prisons — who is there, why, and what people of faith can do about freeing the imprisoned.

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