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What I Learned in Prison: What You Think Has Consequences

August 5, 2013

About two weeks ago I spent two and a half hours in a South African prison (Drakenstein Correctional Centre to be exact). I went there with my dear friend Andrew May who I have known for my entire life. These days he and his wife run a prison ministry in South Africa and my wife and I took the opportunity to see what they were doing while we were visiting.

What Andrew was doing that evening was running a Bible Study for inmates who had just finished a Restorative Justice class. I sat at a table with murders, rapists, and a serial carjacker and listened to them respond to Andrew’s lesson with thoughtful reflection on their own lives and how they had come first to be violent criminals and then how they were coming to be different men transformed by their new-found faith. I was deeply impressed by the depth of their reflections and I will be taking the space of an article or two to give my own thoughts on what they taught me.

The first thing that came through clearly from these men was the idea that thoughts matters. We live in a world where the divide between public and private is often strictly observed and treated as very real. We regard certain spheres of life as public where our conduct can be scrutinized and criticized (our job performance, the way we relate to people we’ve just met, and statements we make in public forums for instance) and certain other areas of life as private and beyond criticism from any but those close to us. Generally speaking, we are most comfortable with people criticizing our actions, then our words, and last our thoughts. We see a clear connection between our actions and other people and so we understand why other people can weigh in on our actions but it’s harder to see why other people have the right to weigh in on our thoughts. However, the prisoners I talked to saw a clear connection between thoughts and actions. For them thoughts were just the beginning stages of actions and the stage at which actions could be most easily altered.

One well-spoken young man explained it this way. Initially, he said, he’d just drunk a lot and carried a knife. However, as time went on he got into drugs. The drugs cost a lot of money and so he began to borrow money to pay for them. Then he borrowed money with no intention of paying it back. This was so close to outright cheating that he began to cheat people in more overt ways. That was so close to stealing that he soon moved on to that. Since stealing required him to overlook the feelings of others anyway it wasn’t a huge leap to threaten people and rob them. Eventually something went wrong and he ended up stabbing a man to death. At each step his thoughts set him up for the next action. As he removed a mental barrier against borrowing a lot of money it became easier for him to think of that money as his. This made it easier for him to ignore the need to pay the money back. This willful suppression of the other person’s right to ownership allowed him to cheat and eventually steal. At each point his action was enabled by re-imagining the world in his head in such a way that his next action became totally acceptable.

What interested me most about this was that none of this struck me as controversial and yet parts of this strike at some key elements of the reigning ideology in the West. The simple idea that one’s thoughts prepare one for actions seems hard to deny. I doubt that anyone hearing this young prisoner’s story would deny that he was essentially practicing crimes in his head before he performed them in the outside world. However, we might also want to draw a sharp divide between the crimes performed in his head and those realized in the outside world. One set is private, unreal, and should not be legislated against or really even spoken against. People have a right to think whatever they want and it’s just intrusive to try and mess with that many would say. Once these thoughts become actions we would consider them public and real, legitimate targets for criminalization and public disapproval. However, is seems like the prisoners I spoke to did not feel that the divide between the mental preparation for the crimes and the criminal actions was nearly that clear and clean.

When I spoke to Andrew about this he put it well: “Nobody talks about moral relativism in the slums.” He went on to explain why: because the slums of South Africa are home to people like the violent criminals the inmates that he works with once were. Telling these people to do what makes them happy without reference to a binding moral code is terrifying. Instead, you want to tell these people how important and absolute morality is and how completely unacceptable much of their behavior is. Moral relativism is the sort of thing one talks about once one has cleared the room of anyone whose morals you aren’t ready to embrace.

Perhaps it makes more sense to back way, way out. The Enlightenment project involves in part bringing together people who disagree and placing them together in the same society without violence between them. To do this the Enlightenment created several useful fictions. One of these was a divide between public areas of life that one was free to get upset (perhaps violently) about and private areas of life that were none of your business. If your neighbor was a Catholic and you were a Protestant that was private and you couldn’t kill him for it. If your neighbor was an arsonist that was public and you could send him to the gallows for that. This divide makes societies like our own work. However, the divide isn’t real. We see this every time someone tests an edge case. A Jehovah’s Witness denies their child a life-saving blood transfusion. Is that private (religion) or public (child abuse)? Someone expresses the opinion that all members of a particular ethnic group should die. Is that private (free speech) or public (inciting violence)? The divide we have is not placed on some great rift between two clearly-separable world but instead at a socially-agreed-upon point along a continuum.

The take-home on this is not the overthrow of the social order and the destruction of liberal democracies. Instead, it’s that when we examine ourselves we shouldn’t buy into the notion that some things have no real effect on our characters and our actions. What the prisoners I talked to saw clearly was the clear connection between what they thought and what they did, what attitudes they cultivated in their minds and how they treated others in the world. In their cases this connection was made clear because their actions were so terrible. There was some point at which they had to stop and ask themselves, “How did I become the sort of person who could murder someone?” Fortunately, most of us are not asking ourselves that question. Unfortunately, because we aren’t asking ourselves that question it’s easy to ignore any examination of how we got to where we are today and so it’s easy to ignore the necessity for keeping our thoughts pure. Because we haven’t ever had bad thoughts lead down a road that ends with a twenty-year prison sentence it’s easy to pretend that bad thoughts lead nowhere bad at all (and even though I am writing this article I find myself constantly telling myself this same fiction). Unfortunately, I am convinced that this is not true and that our bad thoughts also lead us into bad places. They just aren’t bad enough to catch our attention so clearly.

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