According to various testimonies by former inmates, time spent on “the inside” has often been a positive experience of communal living and group solidarity. It should be noted that these testimonies were offered by Christian inmates, all of which seemed to experience a greater sense of community when compared with their non-Christian peers. It is my opinion that the heightened sense of solidarity that inmates experience is, in part, due to their shared desire and ability to resemble the early Christian communal structure. It was while I was reading a portion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, Life Together, that I was prompted to more closely examine community-building practices among the incarcerated and recently released.
While I am certain that few would think to locate a community of faith, such as this, within jails or prisons, there is, nevertheless, evidence that some of the essential aspects that help foster healthy relationships within community are present and more pronounced in jail and prison environments. Among the essential aspects, there are five common factors, which have been located at low, mid, and high intervals: informal interaction; safety; privacy and anonymity; neighboring preferences; and localism. These five common factors are vital for healthy inter-personal and inter-institutional relationships within any community. Within the jail and prison system, the Christian community functions at the highest intervals of each of the five common factors. Informal interactions are heightened due to the construction of living quarters and frequency of contact between individuals. Many inmates admit that they have a greater feeling of security and safety within the confines of the institution. Considering that many offenders are arrested because of drug dependencies or for committing violent crimes, incarceration serves as a means of protection – from others and one’s own self. Although there is a heightened functionality of interaction among inmates, there is also a place, and need, for privacy and anonymity. Numerous inmates have claimed that their greatest moments of contemplation and inspiration have occurred while they were incarcerated. Because Christianity is generally supported by a small percent of the inmate population, the preference for frequent neighbor interaction with like-minded individuals is intensified. Finally, Christian inmates usually exhibit strong desires to participate in “neighborhood affairs” that are productive and beneficial to the collective assembly and for further community-building. Although jails and prisons are not ideal locations to discover and foster community-building practices, the conditions have produced an environment where individuals can experience a greater sense of community. It is the latter of the aforementioned, localism, which a Bonhoefferian framework was employed to further examine community-building among Christian inmates.
According to Bonhoeffer, “…a community which allows unemployed members to exist within it will perish because of them” (Doberstein 1954:94). While Bonhoeffer was speaking specifically to, and about, the Christian community, his general premise can be extrapolated to incorporate non-Christians and serve as instruction for cultivating notable practices of reflection and assignment. That is to say, by welcoming and employing others in the business of discourse, in common places, the tendency to scrutinize, condemn and judge “otherness” can be fairly assuaged and the proper place for conversation can be demarcated. So, while inmates have created opportunities for employment for themselves, both physically and spiritually (e.g. setting-up for events, distributing material, organizing programs, facilitating Bible studies, praying for one another, etc.), they have also exposed “others” to the principles of community-building and the fundamental tenets of the faith.
Bonhoeffer also argued that by “refusing the ‘other’ his freedom…and…constraining him” we, as Christians, are “doing violence to their personality,” and in essence, rejecting part of God’s creation (Doberstein 1954:101). It is, then, the practice of allowing another’s freedom to collide with our own sense of autonomy which presents the opportunity to recognize that the other’s image is also created by God, and that his participation in life is inextricably part of the larger created order. Within the context of jails and prisons, Bonhoeffer’s recommendations are overtly magnified. For the inmate, the establishment of genuine community is arduously sought after (ref. Acts 2:44-46) and the practice of engagement and giving another his freedom is simply an obligatory conclusion (ref. Acts 17:17).
Although I am convinced that a vibrant community of faith exists inside of America’s jails and prisons, and that Christian inmates are benefiting from the models and practices that have been created within them, I am, nevertheless, concerned that the practices which inmates readily utilize are too easily forgotten when they are released. What can be done? Better?