Spirituality in Prisons

Spirituality in prisons is a strange topic. It is like the topic of fire in water. Why? Because we think of prisons as places where criminals, convicted or presumed innocent, live. How can spirituality co-exist with these criminals? We would think that spirituality is in churches and homes but hardly in prisons among criminals.

Prisons Can Be Places of Deep Spirituality

But if we reflect seriously, prisons can indeed be places where spirituality can germinate, grow, bloom and bear fruit.

Just take the case of Viktor Emil Frankl, who was imprisoned in the concentration camps of Hitler during World War II. Because of this experience in prison he was able to write the best-selling book, MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING. His spirituality which bloomed in the most sordid conditions in the camps is witness to the fact that indeed prisons can be a fertile ground for spirituality.

Or take the case of Benigno Aquino Jr. who was converted to genuine Christianity and deep spirituality in the prison cells where he was put after Ferdinand Marcos, then President of the Philippines, declared Martial Law in September 21, 1972.

Factors Making Prisons Places of Deep Spirituality

The primary factor which makes prisons a fertile ground for spirituality is the abundance of time prisoners enjoy. Prisoners have plenty of time in their prison quarters for themselves, even for those who are condemned to do hard labor.

A second factor is suffering. Prisoners suffer. They suffer from restrictions of movement, food and human relations. The last restriction makes them very lonely and is perhaps for most, as it was for me once, the worst suffering.

A person who is lonely and suffering and has plenty of time for himself or herself is bound to think and think more. He can do no other thing except commit suicide. But in prisons suicide is carefully guarded against.

There are of course diverse kinds of prisons, from being locked up in a cell to being confined to a penal colony where prisoners can cultivate farms and simulate normal life.

But ample time and lots of suffering do provide a favorable setting for the presence and flourishing of spirituality in prisons.

The two months I was confined in prison in 1968 gave me ample time to reflect on my own life. Fortunately I was allowed to have a Bible which I kept on reading. Loneliness was indeed a cause of sharp and deep suffering. I was able to smuggle out a letter through the help of a fellow prisoner who was getting out of confinement. There I realized that indeed spirituality could germinate, grow, bloom and fructify in prison conditions.

Religiosity in Prisons Is Not Enough

This may lead authorities to take advantage of this opportunity to sow the seeds of spirituality among our prisoners. Many prison establishments do provide religious services. There are even prison chaplains. Regular Bible studies are conducted in many prison institutions. But spirituality as such is not given due importance.

Religiosity is not the same as spirituality. In religiosity the focus is on the religious thinking, words and religious acts of a prisoner, like praying and participating in church related services. In spirituality the focus is on the positive creativity of a person’s spirit, not just the making of handicrafts or engaging in works of art, but in truly liberating the spirit from the confines of an enslaved life, perhaps enslaved by murderous passions or addictions or other factors.

Obstacle to Spirituality in Prisons

An obstacle to the germination and growth of spirituality in prisons is the reformatory mentality many prison establishments have. This is very apparent by their use of the term “correctional” or “reformatory”. They want their prison inmates to reform, to change their behavior, from bad to good, from greed to generosity, from murdering for revenge to forgiveness of wrongdoing done to them. To achieve this objective there are drills, exercises, classes, sessions, etc.

But the inmates cannot change their behavior unless new life is stirred up among them, unless they are convinced of the primacy of the spirit in their life. This is where a real ministry in prisons can be done: not a change in behavior, but in total orientation; not in the change of language the prisoners use, but a completely new mind.

A Challenge to Prison Administrators

May our prison authorities see the possibilities of making their correctional facilities gardens of genuine spirituality.

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