One of our church pastors – we’re blessed with a tag-team, a hard-working couple with big hearts, and vivacious children – decided to make a video on biblical justice for a sermon series, and asked me to contribute due to my involvement in a prison ministry. Here’s the original script with details that hit the cutting room floor. The video turned out well, and it’s included here, but the context always helps.
Tampa Heights, Florida: 1980
The concept of biblical justice is so broad and detailed that I can’t cover it in three minutes. But I can tell a couple of stories that illustrate the idea.
In 1980 I worked at Tampa Heights Hospital in Florida, a psychiatric facility eerily resembling the novel/movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The gloomy, unclean building was a dark stage for constant drama. My pay was $3.20 per hour for wrestling unhinged people to the ground while nurses shot them up with Thorazine.
On my first day at work, a woman in her eighties struggling with severe dementia arrived in an ambulance. She’d been living at home with eight dogs, eating fido-food out of their dishes, sleeping with them in piles of rags, and defecating on the kitchen floor. Suddenly I was the only aide left standing there during her intake. I wondered why the others melted away. Looks like you get to clean her up, said the doctor. I donned three layers of plastic and tossed her into a hot tub filled with suds. On the third bath, fleas still jumped off as she giggled like a three-year-old.
A few months later the federal government decided to cut off financial aid to all those seeking psychiatric hospitalization, but couldn’t pay for it themselves. The ink was still fresh on President Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act – which supported and financed community mental health support systems – but newly elected Ronald Reagan killed it with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981, sending people to the streets.
President Reagan never understood mental illness. Like Richard Nixon, he was a product of the Southern California culture that associated psychiatry with Communism. Two months after taking office, Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, a young man with untreated schizophrenia. Two years later, Reagan called Dr. Roger Peele, then director of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where Hinckley was being treated, and tried to arrange to meet with Hinckley, so that Reagan could forgive him. Peele tactfully told the president that this was not a good idea. Reagan was also exposed to the consequences of untreated mental illness through the two sons of Roy Miller, his personal tax advisor. Both sons developed schizophrenia; one committed suicide in 1981, and the other killed his mother in 1983. Despite such personal exposure, Reagan never exhibited any interest in the need for research or better treatment for serious mental illness. -- Wikipedia
Patients were told they could re-enter the now “private” facility if they forked over $250 cash.
No one had the cash.
They didn’t have their wits, must less the cash.
We dumped everyone onto the street. To my perpetual shame.
I looked up Tampa Heights Hospital to see if it still existed. Using an address I found for the old location, I discovered an article saying investors bought the place and turned it into a high-dollar drug rehab facility for rich customers. Ka-Ching.
Fast forward forty-one years and now I’m a Kairos volunteer.
Kairos is an organization that carries the knowledge of the saving grace of Jesus Christ to people in prison. It’s extremely successful because those who come to Christ change their lives in a positive direction, as shown in recidivism rates.
I visit the prison four times a month, teaching creative writing and attending Prayer and Share Tuesday night services with Kairos Weekend alumni.
When we’re in the prison on a Kairos Weekend twice a year, we view the medicine line, where prisoners are dispensed their psychiatric drugs. The line wraps around the building. Lately, thugs from gangs are beating up people in wheelchairs so they can get to the head of the line.
People inside tell us that uncountable inmates suffer psychiatric problems. Here are the official statistics:
The numbers are even more stark when parsed by gender: 55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, but 73 percent of female inmates are. Meanwhile, the think-tank writes, "only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates who suffer from mental-health problems report having received mental-health treatment since admission." -- The Atlantic
Those hurting folks we dumped onto the streets during the 80’s – and those we’ve denied psychiatric treatment since – often live nightmarish prison lives.
They receive little counseling, but a lot of drugs.
From 2001 to 2018, the number of people who have died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons increased by more than 600%, according to an analysis of newly-released data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In county jails, overdose deaths increased by over 200%. -- The Marshal Project
This is a biblical justice issue.
I really enjoy teaching creative writing at the prison because most of the writers are lifers. That means they will be in jail for life. They will never be set free.
Because of that, they’ve all been set free.
Why? They are believers in Christ Jesus.
They tried everything else in the world, and none of that worked. I mean everything.
And now that they’ve found grace, they are free to be what they were meant to be in the first place. And who offers grace? Our Lord and God.
No other substance, travel destination, guru, or religion can afford its cost.
Only one person in the history of the world could afford, pay for, and offer free to all of earth’s inhabitants the path to salvation through grace.
Freedom, in its purest form.
I’ve lost track of how many inmates have told me that they’re thankful for ending up in prison because they never would have met Jesus in the free world.
The “free world” of drugs, alcohol, prostitution, internet pornography, political disunity, ad infinitum.
They were saved by prison.
Because you sent in volunteers.
Because you baked cookies.
Because you prayed as the Body of Christ for four straight days 24/7 when lost souls needed it most: when they were at the crossroads of their lives on a Kairos Weekend.
That’s not his real name. But “DeWayne” is from Middle Tennessee and was fifteen when he was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.
He will never be set free.
I didn’t know this when I first met him when he joined our creative writing class two years ago.
After watching him interact with others, seeing how he takes care of everyone else but himself, after reading his excellent prose, after admiring his work with the Lifer’s Club, which uses its prison-earned money to buy backpacks and lunches for needy kids, I had to ask him.
What are you doing here? I can’t imagine you pulling off a crime.
DeWayne said he was fifteen and had just walked in the door after baseball practice and found his drunken step-father beating his mother with his fists. Again.
He’d witnessed these beatings over and over and it made him sick to his stomach.
This time he was holding a baseball bat.
DeWayne told me he’d been in prison for two years before he realized what he did was wrong. Then he gained two hundred pounds and weighed in at 380. Three-hundred-eighty-pounds.
This is a common side-effect of guilt.
Then he met Jesus on a Kairos Weekend and he’s been selfless ever since.
Lost one-hundred-fifty pounds. Weighs about 230 now.
DeWayne grows daily from reading, writing, praying, singing lead in the prison gospel band, and helping others.
Has an impeccable mind and writes beautifully.
But he’ll die in prison. And it turns out there are one-hundred-eighty-five humans in Tennessee prisons who received life sentences as adolescents.
This is a biblical justice issue.
Thanks for listening.
If you are interested in joining this important ministry, please talk to me after church any Sunday.