The National Catholic Review
Jens Söring

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 20 percent of America’s two million prison inmates are mentally ill. Take a moment to reflect upon that fact. In the land of the free and the home of compassionate conservatism, there are 400,000 men and women who are so obviously and unavoidably deranged that even prison guards must take official notice of their illness. Yet the best we can do for these sons and daughters of God is to lock them in cages with rapists and con men and killers, who prey upon them at every opportunity.

Why should you care? Because Jesus did, as shown by the healing of the Gerasene demoniac. You will recall that this man had frequently been bound with shackles and chains until he was banished to the tombs outside towna dangerous lunatic, a public menace, the type who causes major property damage by chasing whole herds of swine into lakes (Mk 5:4). Instead of hauling him before the magistrate for grand theft pork, however, Christ freed the demoniac of his unclean spirits, apparently clothed him, and provided a rehabilitative employment opportunity: to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him (Mk 5:15, 20).

Even the Son of God might have despaired at the thought of 399,999 additional Gerasene demoniacs, however. The truth is that each one of these mentally ill offenders is difficult to deal with and often dangerous. In that regard, the demoniac of the Bible is really quite typical: he had not worn clothes for a long time, would cry out and cut himself with stones and was so violent that no one could pass that way (Lk 8:27; Mk 5:5; Mt 8:28). I see dozens of men just like him at the prison in which I am currently serving two life sentences.

And they are the lucky ones, because this facility has a separate buildingone of five on the compoundwhich is designated a mental health unit. There they are guarded by correctional officers with some additional training and monitored by a psychiatrist, who ensures they get their psychotropic medication. But in the overwhelming majority of penitentiaries, even flamboyantly psychotic inmates are simply dispersed into the general population and left to fend for themselves.

To their credit, most general population prisoners do not exploit the crazies; on one occasion, I actually witnessed a brief fight that started over one man’s attempt to stop another from stealing a loon’s canteen purchases. But there are always plenty of less heartwarming episodes. After being declared stable by the mental health unit staff, for instance, one young man of my acquaintance was moved to a general population building, where he set up shop as the semi-official prostitutecome one, come all! Whether this method of supplementing his income was voluntary in any real sense of that word is questionable.

Even when not being robbed or raped by general-population inmates, mentally ill prisoners do not have an easy time of it. There are more fights in the mental health unit, among the nuts themselves, than in the rest of the prison. And in spite of the efforts of those guards who try to help these men, many of them fail to take showers and do not wash their clothes for weeks on end. So they wander around the prison in a medicated daze, scavenging thrown-away cigarette butts to feed their nicotine addiction.

Yet if one looks closely enough, one can find grace shining softly even through these broken men, these demoniacs. Each and every day, little Mr. Turlington smiles at me and bids me good morning as he mops the same spot of prison floor he has been mopping for over a decade. It’s a beautiful day, he announces with great certainty to anyone who passesand sometimes, just sometimes, I know what he means.

Of course you can look away and ignore Mr. Turlington. That is why your tax dollars are used to keep men like him in prisons, instead of in community-based residential treatment centersso you do not have to see them. Here, in the dungeon with me, they are invisible. But Jesus saw them. He looked at the Gerasene demoniacand loved him. He who has eyes, let him see!

Jens Sring has served 17 years of two life sentences. His first book, The Way of the Prisoner: Breaking the Chains of Self Through Centering Prayer and Centering Practice, will be released this fall by Lantern Books.

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