Prisoners have a special place in the Christian imagination. It matters that Jesus himself was a prisoner. To speak the language of American law enforcement, his death was a death in custody. His most influential followers, Peter and Paul, were also prisoners. They too died in custody. John the Baptist, who first acclaimed Jesus as Messiah, was beheaded in a Roman prison. Christianity is a religion founded by men in deep trouble with the law, men familiar with the inside of prisons, whose message was "the last shall be first, and the first last."
In religious ethics as formulated in our monotheistic traditions, what is owed to the neighbor is simultaneously owed to God himself. The Christian way of imagining this double duty exploits the fact that Christianity's God has appeared in human form. Thus, when doing good deeds for our fellow human beings, we as Christians seek to imagine that we are simultaneously doing them for Christ in person. Jesus taught his followers to imagine themselves hearing his voice saying, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you came to me," and finally: "I was in prison and you visited me" (Matthew 25:35-36).
Allow me, if I may, at this dark and shameful moment in our history, to linger over the last entry on that list: "I was in prison and you visited me." Jesus gives every item on his list twice-once in a positive formulation, for praise, and once in a negative formulation, for blame. Thus, "I was in prison and you did not visit me." Can you imagine what it is like to be in prison waiting for a visit that does not come? But let me ask an easier question: Do you know where the nearest jail is?
Ten years ago, when I was still working for the Los Angeles Times, I discovered Los Angeles County Jail almost by accident. At that time, I had worked out a back-streets route to escape rush-hour traffic. I grew so familiar with my zigzag shortcut that I knew every building along the way. I didn't fail to notice, then, when a large new building started to go up on a brick-strewn no-man's-land northeast of Union Station. Octagonal in shape and windowless, this building-set well back from the street-appeared to be some kind of power plant or transmitting station. After the first month or so, I noticed that there were actually two octagonal structures under construction.
This sort of thing doesn't ordinarily much interest me; but leaving one Friday for a three-day weekend, I noticed that a large sign had gone up of the usual sort that one sees in front of construction sites. I decided to park and walk across the rubble to read what it said. It was then that I learned that the two octagonal structures were in fact additions to the Men's Central Jail and that, after all, they were not windowless. What looked at a distance like seams were actually tall, narrow, slit-like windows.
What I took away from my discovery was a humbling and somewhat disturbing reflection on, as it happens, the Shoah, the genocidal slaughter of Europe's Jews by Nazi Germany. In discussions of the Shoah, I had heard the question asked more than once: "Did the Germans know?" Almost always, the conclusion reached was that, yes, they surely did know. Were I a German living in that era, I had wondered, would I have known? Would I have spoken out? The fact that until stumbling upon the largest jail in my own city in this way I had not known its location and that this bit of ignorance had never bothered me in the slightest seemed a damning commentary on my social awareness.
Now, unlike the concentration camps, County Jail is not a secret facility; it is not located outside the borders of the United States. Nonetheless it had never occurred to me to ask even the first question about it. If I had been a German living in 1946, would it have been an adequate defense to say that I didn't know about the death camps simply because it had never occurred to me to ask? Yet in Los Angeles this flimsy excuse seemed to be my only defense.
I found this implausible. Surely, I thought, the authorities would not be so foolish as to release a convicted criminal penniless onto the street. But the man had not been panhandling when I almost literally stepped on him. A skinny, crewcut white guy with a couple of teeth knocked out, he was sitting disconsolately alone with his feet in the gutter of a street that had at that hour neither vehicular nor pedestrian traffic. I gave him ten dollars.
A few years later, when a Mexican high school student whom I had tutored was imprisoned on a drug offense and then released in Northern California, I learned that what I had observed that afternoon in Los Angeles was pretty close to standard practice. I also learned, after doing a little archival research, that an alliance of Mexican and Chinese neighborhood people had fought hard against the expansion of County Jail. Understandably, they did not like having homeless, penniless ex-cons turned loose on the streets where they lived. As you will have inferred, they lost that battle. You can fight city hall, but it takes more money to win than they had.
A Christian who does not know where the jails of his town are located would seem to be, in short, not much of a Christian. On judgment day, what can he expect to hear if not the voice of his Lord saying, "I was in prison, and you did not visit me"? And to repeat something I said earlier, if we do not even know where our prisons are located, how can we begin to know how prisoners are treated behind their locked doors?
Over the past two weeks, as the atrocious abuse of Iraqi prisoners by the American military has come to light, President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have been at pains to proclaim that this depravity is not what America is all about. Clearly, it is not what American ideals are all about. But at the level of performance rather than ideals, of rational analysis rather than instinctive affiliation, we must ask whether our treatment of prisoners in Iraq does not, after all, give the world a valid glimpse of how prisoners are treated in America and thereby of America itself.
After the Iraqi prisoner scandal broke, Fox Butterfield, a New York Times reporter who has made prisons something of a specialty, wrote one of the briefest but, in my opinion, most telling articles yet published on the scandal under the title "Mistreatment of Prisoners Is Called Routine in U.S." Its opening two paragraphs read as follows:
Physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, similar to what has been uncovered in Iraq, takes place in American prisons with little public knowledge or concern, according to corrections officials, inmates and human rights advocates.
In Pennsylvania and some other states, inmates are routinely stripped in front of other inmates before being moved to a new prison or a new unit within their prison. In Arizona, male inmates at the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix are made to wear women's pink underwear as a form of humiliation.
As at Abu Ghraib, inadequate budgets have meant shrinking staffs for the staggering 18,000 prisoners held in Los Angeles County facilities. As at Abu Ghraib, inadequate staffs have resulted in a growing risk of anarchy and violence.
American prisons are certainly not the only lens through which to view America, but they are, I submit, one valid lens among the many-as if to say, "Show me how your country treats its prisoners, and I will tell you what kind of country you are."
William Lawson, the man who first alerted CBS to the existence of the now infamous photographs, did not begin with television. Before making that move, he had tried and failed seventeen times, with seventeen different members of Congress, to get our government to address this ongoing atrocity.
But both at home and abroad, the cause of prisoner rights is a cause without a constituency. No one ever won an election campaigning for more humane treatment of convicted or suspected criminals, or even detainees held completely without criminal charge-like the 70-90 percent at Abu Ghraib who were arrested by mistake and eventually released without charge.
At Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo, at several other little known or completely secret places around the world, and in an archipelago of obscure holding pens for illegal immigrants to the United States, tens of thousands of men and women are being held without charge and without term.
Are these unfortunates-typically called detainees rather than prisoners-my neighbor? Ethically, do I owe them anything? As a worshipper of the God who warned, "I was in prison and you did not visit me," I must believe that I do owe them something, but I am still struggling to determine what it is. I do not relish self-examination, much less self-indictment. I would be happy to let the whole thing slide with a sigh of dismissal. Nothing could be more natural, more "philosophical," than that, but nothing would be less Christian. I don't like prisoners any more than the next guy does, but are they my neighbors? Yes, unfortunately, inconveniently, they are.