In my quiet moments this morning, I’m thinking: What are we missing by not tapping the vast resources behind bars?
This thought came to the surface as I glanced through materials about Nelson Mandela, who was South Africa’s first black president. Prior to that he served 27 years in prison!
Here’s my thinking.
The longer I work in this prison business, and the more I associate with and communicate with this vast population behind bars, the more I realize that we’re treating these people like cast-offs, and not taking advantage of their productive minds and abilities. I’m serious about this. My life is immeasurably richer because of my daily association with this mostly ignored segment of society.
There are highly skilled musicians, gifted artists, well-educated scholars and professionals in our prisons. Just because they are on the wrong side of the bars doesn’t mean that their expressions should be suppressed. Just because they erred doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute. And on the flip side, nor does that mean that you and I should be deprived of their offerings.
I’ll stop my ranting and raving a moment to concede that great progress is being made in exhibiting prisoner art, publishing prisoner poetry and literature, and exposing inmates to higher education opportunities.
But we are remiss if we stop there. I’m not sure how to do it, but we’re missing the boat by not using these talents, these minds, these skills, to the fullest extent! And it’s a two-way street. We are blessed by this exposure. The incarcerated, on the other hand, finally get the message that they are not “throwaways,” and their offerings are welcome and appreciated…even necessary!
Just imagine what would happen if these many gifted musicians, artists and educators were invited to give lessons and teach others behind bars.
Just imagine what kind of health, hospice and palliative care we might get if we used the skills of the many incarcerated medics, now wasting their talents and knowledge.
Just imagine what kind of policies governing such things as mail and visitation would be developed if the Department of Corrections held a series of town hall meetings to get the input of our 40,000 state prisoners.
Just imagine what kind of legislation might be introduced if state lawmakers listened to those directly affected by judicial reform instead of lobbyists and corrections personnel.
Here in Pure Michigan, we have 40,000 people in more than 30 state prisons, stretching from Detroit at the southern limit, to Baraga in the U.P. I contend that there’s a gold mine behind those bars.
We’re the criminals if we don’t explore these opportunities!
Quoting Nelson Mendela:
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”