Praying by the prison, Part 2

By Randy Klassen, Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada.

Does our place make a difference to our praying? That’s the question that came to me one morning last fall, as I realized my morning prayer walk took me right across the river from Saskatoon’s federal prison, the Regional Psychiatric Centre (RPC). How do my prayers take my location, my community, into account? Christians are often taught a posture of prayer with eyes closed—but if that also teaches us to shut our minds to the realities of life in our neighbourhood or our nation, our praying will be not only blind, but lame.

bread

I see things differently now. I am reminded that the Lord’s Prayer is a communal prayer—and that for many in the praying community (whether the disadvantaged in my city, or across the globe, or behind prison walls), access to food is a very live issue. And more: for all of us, food issues involve and implicate us in complex global issues of economics and politics. In praying about bread, I am, indeed, reminded that my lifestyle, including my food habits (buying, growing, eating), have an impact on how God responds to this petition from others. Praying about bread is highly relevant, as it is the place where theology intersects with agri-business, commerce—and also justice.

So where do bread and our prisons intersect?

“Give us this day our daily bread.” One of the primary causes of inmate unrest and rioting is food service. Saskatchewan recently experienced this after the provincial prison system changed providers last summer, outsourcing to a large multinational catering company. The economic savings sound impressive: from about five or six dollars a meal (presumably including both food and labour) down to about three and a half dollars. But food quality was predictably down-graded. Regina saw significant protest; inmates in Prince Albert’s women’s prison also registered problems. The premier’s infamous response to the uproar resonated with many people: “If you don’t like the prison food, there’s one way to avoid it, and that’s don’t go to prison.” But such a response sadly lacks an understanding of the many downward currents in our society (notably, the legacy of Indian Residential Schools, insufficient social workers or foster caregivers to work with struggling families, or lack of employment and social programming in small communities) that suck people into criminality.

RJ group

A group of inmates discuss restorative justice at Dochester Penitentiary, News Brunswick. MCC photo/Shane Yuhas)

Premier Wall’s comment begs the question: should food be part of “punishment” in prison? A number of American prisons are known to serve so-called “disciplinary loaf” (also known as “nutraloaf”)—even though the American Correctional Association discourages its use (and Canada gave up the practice only about twenty years ago). Nutraloaf is designed to meet all nutritional needs, but rate exactly zero on any culinary scale—a tasteless lump of indeterminate composition and unpleasant ingestion (read here for one food critic’s take: “a thick orange lump of spite with the density and taste of a dumbbell”). It is controversial in American prisons (and even contested in court as “cruel and unusual punishment”), but continues to be baked up and served by blind Justice.

Closer to home, a group of people “concerned for the well being and dignity of prisoners in Canada” recently published an open letter to the federal government. A number of food-related issues are listed, including the following concerns:

We protest the high prices of food in prison. We decry the lack of expiration dates on all products in prison. We also protest the lack of training we receive inside prison to prepare healthy meals. Some prisoners in minimum or medium security institutions live in independent living units, where they are expected to prepare their own meals. They receive 35$ per week for food. With the high cost of food, that amount is insufficient.

Apparently for residents of Canadian prisons, the prayer for daily bread is no mere formality.

“Give us this day our daily… bison.” This prayer to the Creator would have epitomized the life of the ancestors of most of Saskatchewan’s prison inmates. Two centuries ago, bison were free and plentiful on the central plains of Turtle Island, and the First Nations of these territories centred their lives on the hunt and the generally plentiful provision of this food source. Then came the railways, the hunters from insatiable North American and European markets, and the unimaginable destruction of the herds (from tens of millions in the pre-contact era, to about one thousand left in 1889, only 85 of which were roaming free on the prairies). Like a series of falling dominoes, the 1870s and 1880s saw the bison wiped out, treaties signed, the Indian Act and Indian Residential Schools established, railways built and settlers arriving in western Canada—all feeding the current situation of too many broken communities, and massive over-representation of Indigenous peoples in our prisons.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” A decade ago, six federal prisons operated their own farms. These became places of meaningful employment for inmates, they provided fresh milk and eggs for the community, and (for those working the dairy) gave opportunity to learn what it means to care for another living being. In 2010, the federal government announced it was closing these prison farms for economic reasons. The story of the protests regarding the closure of the Kingston (Ontario) dairy farm, has been well told in the documentary film “Til the Cows Come Home” (2014). And while it’s premature to say that the cows are finally coming home, on June 2 the federal government announced it was going to review and revisit the prison farm issue. This is exciting news that prison farm supporters have long awaited.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Many prisons have inmates working in their kitchens, learning food prep skills that are both restorative (building self-confidence and a sense of hope) and marketable. A few prisons in Europe have taken this to a higher level yet, opening up restaurants staffed by the incarcerated. The Clink (four sites in the UK) and InGalera (Milan, Italy) have each become gastronomic sensations in their own locales. They provide food service for the public and hope for the incarcerated. These are marvelous ways for God to pour—or should we say, knead—grace and mercy into this most basic of human needs:

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

bread

MCC photo/Dave Klassen

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