When Kalief Browder was 16, he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He spent three years at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail—two of them in solitary confinement—while awaiting a trial that would never be. Charges were dropped when prosecutors lost track of the witness.
In the few years since his release, Browder— physically and mentally broken—tried to reclaim his life, according to The New York Times. But he could not. Hope had been lost along with his old self in that solitary cell on Rikers Island. Reading reports of his suicide last month, I wept over his lost life, his lost opportunities, and a system that had forgotten him.
Not that long ago, I supported this institutional forgetting as a form of punishment. For much of my life—from the moment in high school when I watched death penalty advocates cheer the death of serial killer Ted Bundy —I claimed my anti-death-penalty stance and became sold on “lock ’em up and throw away the key” prison sentences, taking criminals away from society long enough to forget about them.
Until I started rethinking that last part. Until a few months ago, when I passed through the gates of Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. Until I participated in retreat for inmate pastors at the largest maximum-security prison in the country. Until I slept in a cabin on prison grounds. Until I walked by cells, peeked into prison classrooms, talked gardening with a man tending the plot outside his barracks. Until I ate and sang and prayed and chatted and danced and laughed with men convicted of crimes far worse than stealing backpacks.
The whole experience was enough change a woman’s mind about forgetting those in prison—something I should’ve learned, and paid attention to, from Jesus himself.
Seeing prison life firsthand and befriending inmates forced me to realize how a heart that grieves at capital punishment ought also to grieve for lives spent forgotten behind bars, too. My time with the men locked up in Louisiana deepened my understanding of many things. Grace, redemption, certainly. But the word that bubbles up most is—of all things—humanity. Specifically, the way each of our humanity reflects God, the face of our Savior.
In Matthew 25, Jesus says we visit him when we visit those in prison. Though not everyone agrees that Jesus meant all prisoners (or all sick or lonely or naked people), and though some think this refers to persecuted followers of Jesus, I know that when I visited a prison, I saw Jesus. In the men who claimed Jesus as their Lord. And in the man who offered me a flower. And in the man who snuck me a jar of fig jam. And the one who talked to me about pit bulls.
I don’t know where their faith is. But I know they are made in God’s image. I know they are beloved by God. And they need to be loved and remembered—not for the worst thing they ever did, but for their humanity. Simply because God asks us to.
In Hebrews 13, Paul connects hospitality to strangers and remembering those in prison to ways we love our brothers and sisters. They are ways we live out the greatest commandment, according to Jesus. And to me, that’s the beauty of the Matthew passage. It connects the forgotten, the “least” to Jesus, calling us to serve him by visiting, by loving, by remembering.
Of course, these acts fuel justice movements (how strange that Jesus asks us to seek justice even for those who have committed injustices). We cannot fight for those we forget or don’t love. Through such acts of ministry and mercy, many of the men I met at Angola had been changed, restored, redeemed—by movements of the Holy Spirit certainly—but through acts of remembering.
Browder’s life might’ve been saved had we as a society remembered the men and women, boys and girls, who wait and waste away in jails or prisons. These inmates lack access to mental health care or advocacy or bail money or spiritual resources before trial. For many of us, it’s easy to forget that people—those who’ve made horrible mistakes, or been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or got caught in the terrible tangles of addiction, or who intentionally did bad, bad things—often sit alone and need to have another human being reach out to them. It’s easy to forget that even “hardened” criminals feel guilt, anger, depression, vengeance, or loneliness.
But God remembers them, and he asks us to.
And he’s prompting key people to make this remembering their calling. Of course, I’m far from the first to have an epiphany on this. Christians like Elizabeth Fry spearheaded prison reform in the 19th century, restoring dignity and reducing cruelty especially among women inmates. Angola’s own warden, Burl Cain, led reform in the Louisiana institution, transforming it from a brutal, bloody place to one of hope and opportunity by heeding Jesus’ words, and encouraging others to as well. Ministries like Prison Fellowship—founded by the late Chuck Colson—have committed themselves to bringing Light into dark and lonely places.
No matter our distance from a local prison, each of us can remember in our own way. We don’t have to start remarkable prison ministries as some have. For some, it means visiting prisoners in person; others can pray for and supporting local prison ministries. By remember in these ways, perhaps we can be instrumental in helping prisoners like Kalief Browder experience not despair but real hope.
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