Praying by the prison (part 4): “On earth as it is in heaven …”

By Randy Klassen, national Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada, based in Saskatoon, SK.

This week, May 28 to June 3, Canada is marking National Victims and Survivors of Crime Week. It’s an important initiative that aims at supporting and caring for the hurt among us.

And, I’ll confess, it’s specifically important for me, as I journey in this world of MCC’s restorative justice work, because I’m also so involved and invested in what we often call “offender-based” service. We visit prisoners; we walk alongside those who have offended sexually, in “circles of support and accountability” (the CoSA program). We do this because we sense a divine push to these dark places.

But in our willingness to enter these broken lives, we sometimes forget the trail of other broken lives left in their wake—the broken lives of victims.

victims and survivors of crime week

Or, even if we don’t forget them, we don’t invest in them in the same way. Maybe we assume that they’re being taken care of. Maybe we assume that since victims and survivors and crime have a moral right to attention and care that they are indeed getting what they need. But, if you listen to the victims’ voices around us, you’ll soon discover how the initial pain or loss, so tragic in itself, is often heavily compounded by how the criminal justice system deals with victims. This reinforces a perennial public complaint: our Canadian justice system focuses more on the rights of offenders than those of victims.

And so, as I walk along the river across from one of Saskatoon’s prisons, and as I walk the sidewalks of my neighbourhood where I know families are enduring the impact of crime, I ponder what part of the Lord’s Prayer I need to focus on. The phrase “on earth as it is in heaven…” pops into my head. But not in a good way. Today that phrase pulls me right into the biblical story of Job.

Job—the wealthy, the privileged, the pious—undergoes a frightful experiment of “heaven on earth.” He becomes the victim of a heavenly conversation that is baffling and, frankly, rather chilling. The conversation goes something like this:

God: Have you noticed my man Job? Isn’t he awesome?

Satan (the prosecution): Really? Take away the power and privilege you’ve given him, and watch him crumble.

God: Okay, you’re on.

Whatever we make of that divine deal, the outcome is that Job becomes a victim. And the basic needs of Job, shown throughout this ancient tale, are still the basic needs of victims and survivors of crime today: presence, communication, acknowledgement, and acceptance. Job rages, he despairs, he laments. Job calls for justice. Tragically, he does so alone—all while his so-called friends blame him for bringing such trouble on himself.

Way of letting goThe story of Job, as a case study in the experience of victims, has much to teach us. So do the on-going stories of today’s victims, such as the profound reflections in Wilma Derksen’s latest book, The Way of Letting Go

Survivors of crime need to be heard. Their experiences, their pain or their anger, need to be acknowledged and validated. They need to be empowered in how they move forward in life—something that the current criminal justice system really struggles to accomplish.

True, we have in Canada the option of registering a “victim impact statement” for the court. But even this tends to reinforce the victim’s role as a witness to the crime, rather than as the actual recipient of harm. It tends to reinforce the criminal justice system’s goal of finding and punishing the wrong-doer, rather than addressing and restoring, as much as possible, the harm done to an individual.

The biblical Job walks a journey from victim to survivor. The word “survivor” connotes an active accomplishment (“sur-” means “over, above”), a dynamic reality of outlasting, even triumphing. Job does so in an encounter with the “kingdom, power and glory” of the Creator, the Voice out of the whirlwind.

Wilma Derksen, in Letting Go, does a similar kind of thing, although the Voice shows up differently for her, throughout her hard journey of more than thirty years. The Voice gently appears as “the Nazarene” in chapter after chapter. Derksen bears witness to the resilience of the survivor. And in so doing, she also bears witness to the grace of the One who walks alongside all victims in this world’s vale of tears.

So now, I walk and ruminate on those final words of this prayer, “for Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory…” I hope and pray that the invisible realities these words express will strengthen the weak, give hope to the struggling, and carry those who are grieving. In a word, that those who have experienced harm, and loss, and tragedy in this life, might arrive at their journey’s end not a victim, but a survivor.

Praying by the prison, Part 3: Forgiveness

This week’s writer is Randy Klassen, national Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada, based in Saskatoon, SK.    Restorative Justice Week will be held in Canada, and throughout the world, from November 20-27. 

Tricky thing, forgiveness. As I walk the park trail near my home, in the pre-dawn quiet along the wide South Saskatchewan River, I ponder the words about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Across the river, a line of lights twinkles, marking the Regional Psychiatric Centre (a hospital within the Canadian correctional system) with its high fences and razor wire.

Forgiveness, it seems to me, is as foreign a concept to the criminal justice system as it is the focal point of the Christian message—and practice—of reconciliation. Is there a place for the concept of forgiveness, as we explore what it means to pray near our prisons? Or is the gap too wide, the worlds of faith and justice too distant, divided by a cold river that can’t be crossed?

There are many reasons why forgiveness is a foreigner to our justice system. At its core, the criminal justice system is built on a foundation of the impersonal and abstract. A crime against a neighbour become an offense against the state, symbolized as “the Crown.” The Crown, not the victim, is the principal actor. This was adjusted slightly in 1988, when victims were given a (proxy) voice in the court process, through victim impact statements—although it took another eleven years before victims were actually allowed to read their statements to the court. But in general, the system is designed to keep victim and offender separate; the focus is on the offender alone, on guilt and punishment, and not on the dynamics of the relationship that bind together victim and offender. Forgiveness is fundamentally about what happens between persons on either side of an offense, and criminal justice builds a high wall exactly where forgiveness wants to take up residence.

forgiven-forgotten-promo-pic

If you are in BC (Fraser Valley, Kelowna, or Victoria) Nov 17-27, come see the play, “Forgiven/Forgotten,” touring as part of National Restorative Justice Week. Tour details are available at https://forgivenforgotten.wordpress.com/

There are other reasons why forgiveness is a foreigner: it might be the wide variety of ways people think of forgiveness. Some consider that offering forgiveness to a wrongdoer excuses the offense, undermining its severity or ignoring it altogether. Others are offended by the proverb “forgive and forget”—and I agree with them, for that’s another way we might minimize the very real harm done in an offense. And if we underestimate the harm done to victims, aren’t we actually abetting the offender? We end up re-victimizing the victim, and adding to the original offense. Forgiveness goes sour; rather than a healing balm, it becomes poison.

For those schooled in the ways of Jesus, it seems to me there’s another way in which forgiveness turns toxic. The words of Jesus, right here in the Lord’s Prayer and many other places, urge and even command his followers to forgive. There is no getting around this—Christians are called to forgive. And this can induce huge guilt in a victim. “Am I not a good enough person to forgive?” Or the community can place its expectations on the victim to take the moral high road. “Just get on with your life. You ought to forgive” (and we can almost hear the unspoken conclusion, “…and forget.”) And so forgiveness becomes an unbearable weight, or a volatile fuse.

And yet… and yet, there are people who have suffered unspeakable things, and who forgive their wrongdoers. Such forgiveness is real, and such stories show up everywhere. If we can say anything about authentic forgiveness, it is that it is a mystery, and a gift. We can never demand it of the victim. Like true love, it is intensely personal: each person’s path towards forgiveness is unique. Like true love, we don’t create it (although we can create conditions for it to take root and flourish)—we find it, or even, it finds us. In fact, forgiveness isn’t like true love, it is a form of that divine love.

So, are there ways to bring back the relational element, the dimension of community—preconditions of forgiveness—into the justice system? Many communities (and even some courts) have restorative justice processes that lead in that direction. They add an element of humanity to the journey, giving voice to the victims, and increasing the possibility of offenders taking responsibility for the harm they caused.

And for those in prison? Does this line of the Lord’s Prayer mean anything for them? Two thoughts cross my mind. The first is this: how long do we continue to label someone based on their offense? They have done a bad (even horrendous) deed; must they forever be labelled a horrible person? Do we as society do right to continue to label them? Or do past (and duly recognized) misdeeds have an expiry date? Is there a place and time where we can agree to release people from stigma, from blaming and shaming? That release is part of what Jesus means by forgiveness.

A second and final thought—relating to something I observed at the Willow Cree Healing Lodge, near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, a federal correctional institution based on Indigenous cultural practices. The men there are not called “inmates,” nor “patients” (as they are at Saskatoon’s RPC). They are n­īcisān (NEE-tsan), Cree for “brother.” They are treated with humanity and dignity: guard and n­īcisān walk side by side (and I was told more than once how very difficult that is for any guard trained in a regular prison). They celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts together, again side by side. A humane relationship like this creates the space for a new start, for a healthier re-entry into the community.

And it makes me think of another word of Jesus: If someone offends against you, go to him alone. …If he listens to you, you have gained a brother. Even in our prisons, is this not a taste of forgiveness?

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

Praying by the prisons, Part 1

This week’s guest writer is Randy Klassen, national Restorative Justice coordinator for MCC Canada. He is based in Saskatoon.

Every so often, the Lord’s Prayer erupts as a public issue, as it did recently in a Saskatchewan community. Should the prayer be recited in a public school? Personally, I have more than enough challenges keeping it in my own home, or my own heart. Do those of us who serve “in the name of Christ” (MCC’s guiding star) let this prayer speak into, and even challenge, our own daily practices?

A few months ago, I went on an early morning walk in my neighbourhood, on the north side of Saskatoon. Walking along our beautiful riverside parkway in the starry predawn light, I paused to pray the Lord’s Prayer. But as I began, I was suddenly struck by something that had remained invisible for many years: I was standing (and about to pray) directly across the river from the Regional Psychiatric Centre (RPC), a federal prison which is also a mental health care facility. A second thought followed quickly: just down the road, on my side of the river, was the Saskatoon Correctional Centre (SCC), a provincial prison.

RPC from across the River

Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon.  Photo courtesy Randy Klassen

Two prisons, barely 4 km apart—and my home was located almost exactly in between the two. How was it that I could live here for over a decade, and never really stop to acknowledge their existence, let alone ask how these two neighbouring institutions might shape my praying, and my living? What would it mean for me to pray the Lord’s Prayer, living between two prisons?

I’m only now starting to get to know these places, in terms of what they mean to the people incarcerated there and the staff who work with them. Here are a few facts that have emerged, as I try to gain a bit of context about these prisons. RPC is one of four federal institutions equipped as a mental health hospital (a fifth, Kingston’s Regional Treatment Centre, was closed in September 2013). Saskatoon’s is the nation’s largest such facility, with a capacity for 204 patients. I know there are many caring and competent staff there, because I’ve met some of them; but it is still part of the penitentiary system, and there is an undercurrent of desperation there. The controversial and psychologically damaging practice of solitary confinement (aka “administrative segregation”; see also here) is used regularly. RPC has the tragic distinction of being Canada’s prison with the highest number of deaths (consistently about five a year, for at least the last eight years).

And just a few kilometres down the road, the SCC struggles with other issues: serious overcrowding (often close to 500 inmates in a facility built for 320), and unrest stemming from a recent change in food providers. One quarter of the inmates are in remand—i.e., awaiting trial or sentencing. And what is possibly the most troubling of all: about 80% of male inmates are Indigenous (as are 90% of female inmates at the women’s prison in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan). Compare that to 15% Indigenous in our provincial population as a whole.

How am I to pray, in the light of such massive systemic realities that target and take out one element of our population like that? Or should I grieve this first, before I can pray?

Photo Credit Radio Canada

Photo Credit Radio Canada

I start to mouth the words, “Our Father…”. And I stumble on the word “Our.” I am reminded, first of all, that there are many people of faith who are incarcerated. Indeed, many within these prison walls profess a vital faith in Jesus. They are clearly part of my faith family, and I have lived for years without thinking about them, without including them in the orbit of my relationships and my concern. Is that not a call for me to repent?

And for all inmates, of any faith or tradition (or none), when I pray along with Jesus to “Our” heavenly parent, I am invited by him to see all people as a part of the human family. I can’t ignore those who remain invisible to the rest of society; I can’t live in a way that lets them be treated as less than human. That first word—“Our”—challenges me to re-imagine the boundaries of my circles of concern. Ultimately, it changes the way I must answer the question, “Who is my neighbour?”

(to be continued)