Johnny Cash recorded Folsom Prison Blues, and the dead-eyed, wanton line about shooting a man in Reno, just to watch him die, some 12 years before I entered the world. But like many I was chilled by it, even when barely old enough to understand it. Cash was thereafter and forever associated with the outlaw archetype; many believed he either committed that crime or one nearly as vicious. He spent no time in prison and never committed murder, but apparently once joked that, while he had absolutely made up the line about Reno, he had done it without much trouble.
The myth around Cash as an outlaw also brought prisoners to him, mostly in the form of letters from men around the country who believed that he spoke for them, and that perhaps he could be a voice for a group that decidedly had none, particularly when modern ideas of prison reform were still years away. Unpaid, he not only played concerts in correctional facilities for 30 years, but also pushed for humane conditions and meaningful reforms as far as the White House.
I’m no Biblical scholar, but his efforts were Christian in every sense of the word as I have come to know it. I’ve never been a fan of the supposedly rhetorical “What Would Jesus Do?” as I think Jesus was more often unknowable than knowable in terms of what he did or why. But I think it’s more or less obvious that he would have answered the pleas of despised and caged people in a similar way.
I spent most of my career attempting to put people in prison, usually men, and usually for offenses involving violent and sexual crime. There should have been little concern on my part for those I sent to correctional systems, a relatively decent if imperfect one in New York and a sadly far worse one in Virginia.
But as I’ve written before, the abuse of incarcerated persons is something that frankly frightens and disgusts me as much as the underlying crimes- whatever they are- that make prisons necessary in the first place. When we allow the destruction of order, dignity and decency in caring for people we cage, we forfeit our rights to do so.
We also seed our own destruction just as surely, for as a society we are correctly judged by how we treat not only the weakest but also the most dispossessed and yes- despised- among us.
I am not naive to the potential for depravity or manipulation by many who find themselves in correctional facilities. Most are there because they belong there, and some are truly frightening and harmful people, however they became that way. Regardless, we owe them a safe and healthful, if stripped down and monastic, environment. Worse, from time to time, investigators and prosecutors get it tragically wrong- every decent law enforcement official’s worst nightmare- and we land innocent people in those environments as well. We cannot tolerate punishment that isn’t legal and preceded by due process; it mocks our authority to do so and it risks far too much.
There are practical as well as moral and legal reasons for treating incarcerated persons humanely. Among them is the reality that most will be released; if their time is made brutal by abuse and mistreatment, we cannot expect them to be released with any inclination to live better lives.
I don’t think Cash was focused on the practicalities of better treatment for prisoners, though. I don’t think Jesus, whoever he was, would have been either. Christianity, as weakly as I may understand it, is to me mostly about giving and sacrificing for those on the margins, away from the table, and deeply shaded from the light of admiration, comfort and companionship.
Much to the chagrin, particularly in recent times, of those who see the necessity for a morality play in terms of structuring charity and alms, the reasons for why a person is damned or forgotten really don’t matter. It’s about giving to those people even when it’s deemed foolish; indeed, even when it might be foolish. It’s a challenge I often fail to meet. But not one to which I will be willfully blind.