Friday, March 7, 2008

The tragic reality of evil

It's been a sad day for me.

A good friend, one whom I respect greatly, drew my attention to a court case in Australia.

Two lesbian lovers became sexually aroused while they bludgeoned a teenage girl with a concrete block and strangled her with a dog chain, a judge says.

The young women then kissed over the body of their dead or dying victim, 16-year-old Stacey Mitchell, the West Australian Supreme Court in Perth was told.

Justice Peter Blaxell yesterday sentenced Jessica Ellen Stasinowsky, 21, and Valerie Paige Parashumti, 19, to life in jail, with a minimum 24-year non-parole period, for the "sexually perverse" and "evil" killing. They are to be held in strict security.

My friend was utterly horrified at the very fact of the existence of such people, and - because she knew I'd worked as a prison chaplain, both part-time and full-time, for many years - wanted to know how I could ever face dealing with such "animals", as she described them.

I tried to break the news to her, as gently as possible, that there are thousands of people like that in high-security prisons in this country: and, even worse, for every one we've got safely locked up, there is at least one more just like him or her roaming the streets.

She absolutely refused to believe me. The concept was so far outside the frame of reference of her life that she simply couldn't accept it. She accused me of lying to her, of trying to scare her.

That's why I'm writing this now. I may not be able to get through to my friend - who, after today's conversation, may be less friendly towards me than previously - but I hope and pray that I can get through to you, my readers.

I'm going to post an excerpt from a memoir of prison ministry that I've written. (It's not yet published, but if I can find a publisher who's interested I'll let you know!)

It’s a strange feeling walking out of the penitentiary’s front door. To me it seems that the place has a dark, grim, glowering atmosphere. It falls away from me as I exit, almost like a weight coming off my shoulders. I can’t comment on the psychological implications of such a feeling, but I certainly have a spiritual explanation. The penitentiary is one of the Devil’s playgrounds. He has all too many willing servants inside its walls, even though many of them would scoff at the thought and deny his existence. I don’t. I’ve known corrections staff who are rampant atheists, who’ll deny the existence of God from dawn to dusk and all night long . . . but they won’t deny the existence of the Devil for a moment. Like me, they’ve worked inside a penitentiary and they’ve experienced the truth for themselves.

It’s hard to convey the raw, naked reality of evil to those who’ve lived a sheltered existence. Not all the inmates in the penitentiary are dedicated to evil, of course, but there are enough of them - as attested by our bulging two-binder Posted Picture File - that the oppressive miasma of their presence seems to be absorbed and radiated by the very concrete walls that keep them inside. You’ll sense the same foulness if you visit the site of a major atrocity such as a Nazi extermination camp (although, admittedly, it seems to feel worse in places like that). What else but evil personified can explain the actions of some of the hard-core criminals inside high-security prison walls?

There’s the Central American drug lord who silenced a prospective witness by ordering the kidnapping, rape, torture and murder of his six-year-old daughter. He then had her broken, bloody, naked body nailed to the front door of the witness’s home, with a note thrust into her mouth promising the same treatment to his wife and their other three children unless he ‘forgot’ what he’d seen.

There’s the terrorist who planted a bomb beneath a table in a fast-food restaurant. It blew off the legs of a mother and her two children as they sat there eating.

There’s the warped intellectual with what’s been described to me as a genius-level IQ. His intelligence didn’t stop him mailing parcel bombs to those expressing views with which he disagreed, killing and maiming the recipients (and sometimes their unfortunate assistants who opened the parcels) over a mere difference of opinion.

There are the prison gang bosses who couldn’t kill an inmate who was about to betray their secrets to the authorities, because he’d been moved to secure protective custody in another institution. Furious, they instructed their associates ‘on the street’ to murder his ex-wife, children, parents and grandparents (none of whom had anything to do with his crimes or the gang) in order to ‘wipe out the entire treacherous bloodline’ and teach him a lesson.

You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I can name every one of those individuals and show you the prisons where they’re incarcerated right now. Evil incarnate: the Devil’s spawn in truth. None of them appear to feel even the slightest shred of remorse. It’s in the hope that some of their ilk may yet do so, and that we may be able to help those less steeped in evil from becoming like them, that people such as myself work in places like this. Most of the time we’re disappointed: but every now and again, in far too few cases for our peace of mind, we’re able by God’s grace to penetrate the walls of evil and viciousness which such people have built around themselves and lead them out. Fortunately, many of those in prison are less hardened. Only about one-tenth of the inmates in the Federal corrections system are classified as ‘high-security’, and of those not all are such hard-core evildoers. We hope and pray that we can turn inmates away from the life of crime that leads down that slippery slope . . . help them to change before it’s too late.

Many criticize us for even trying. They ignore the Biblical exhortation to visit the imprisoned (Matthew 25:34-46) and seem to think that we should be expending our efforts on those more ‘deserving’, those who haven’t become criminals. They point out (quite correctly) that many who ‘get religion’ behind bars abandon it as soon as they’re ‘on the street’ once more. However, not all abandon it - and our critics forget one crucially important aspect of prison ministry. With recidivism rates as high as we’re experiencing in this country, we can predict that two out of every three convicts will commit further offences after leaving prison. (That’s how many are likely to be rearrested for new crimes, statistically speaking. There may be more who’ll re-offend but who won’t be caught.) They tend to become more hardened and their crimes become more brutal and serious as they gain experience. They’ll make innocent men, women and children their targets. Even if they survive the victims will be traumatized, shocked, perhaps scarred physically as well as mentally.

That’s what drives us. If we can turn a criminal from his path, we’ve saved not only him but also everyone who would have become his targets had he gone on to commit more crimes. Prison ministry isn’t only for the inmates - it’s for all those who won’t become victims of crime because of our (admittedly few) successes. We won’t know those who would have been victims, and they won’t know what they’ve been spared - but we trust that God will. Perhaps one day we’ll find out.

Have you ever tried to help a family when the wife’s been murdered, leaving her husband a widower and her young children motherless? Have you ever been asked to counsel a seven-year-old boy who’s been sodomized - not to mention helping his distraught parents? Have you ever had to tell a father and mother that their eleven-year-old daughter, standing in the street with her friends, has been shot in the head during a random drive-by shooting and will be a mindless vegetable for the rest of her life? My fellow ministers and I have been in all those situations and more . . . and believe me, there are no words even remotely adequate to describe them.

One understands what the apostle Paul meant when he commanded,‘weep with those who weep’ (Romans 12:15). Sometimes that’s all we can do. It’s in the hope of preventing at least some such tragedies that some of us become involved in prison ministry.

Well, there it is, people. That's what drove me for many years in that ministry. However, I had to accept the brutal reality that for the really hard-core criminals like those I've described, I might - if I was very fortunate - get through to one in twenty. No more than that.

Many of these hard-core criminals will one day be released onto the streets. At current recidivism rates, it's likely that at least two-thirds will re-offend and be re-incarcerated. You need to take steps now in your life, and in the lives of your loved ones, to ensure that you're a more difficult target for them: and if you should be so unfortunate as to become their target, you need to be in a position to defend yourself and your loved ones against them.

Think about it. Do so before you or your loved ones encounter evil. Be prepared - and make sure they're prepared - to do something about it.

Otherwise you, or they, might end up like poor Stacey Mitchell.

May Almighty God have mercy on her soul.



Anonymous said...

As a correctional officer,I understand what you are saying.
As a Christian,I witness to the offenders.Some get the message.
While others are pure evil and do not care.

Brandon said...

Thanks for hanging in there and fighting the good fight, despite the long odds.

phlegmfatale said...

I do believe in redemption, and that a person can change. But only that person can change the way they live. If criminals are locked into a can where the noise around them monolithically reinforces their choice to do evil, then there can be no expectation of a different outcome when/if they are sprung. There are probably a lot of wounded souls who found in you the first person ever to listen to them and to talk frankly to them about making different choices with their lives. I think our very humanity dictates that we must dare to make the contact and present some no-strings-attached kindness to these people.

I had a cousin in prison in Gatesville & Huntsville when I was in high school. We'd drive down to visit her, and I sensed the dolor and menace of the very walls of those facilities. I also sensed how on-edge she was. We went to pick her up when she was released - it seemed like we drove all day to get there, and when we arrived, she declined our offer to stay in our home, but got right on a bus to who-knows where. She died 2 years ago in a motel in Reno, age 44.

With proper regard for our own safety, I think it's incumbent upon us to try to throw a life-ring out to drowning folk whenever possible.

I think your words must have been a beacon of hope to many, and like ripples in a pond, you'll never know to what extent your selflessness may have influenced them for the better. May you be blessed for your generosity.