Every year on Easter Sunday our President, Phil Dunn, gives a message of encouragement and faith to inmates in California state prisons. Easter, in our line of work, is a day that has a special significance. You see, with Jesus’ resurrection came a multitude of promises – the promise of renewal, of life everlasting, of forgiveness, the promise of fulfillment and of transformation. And promises bring hope, especially to those who long for freedom.
Last year, speaking with these issues in mind, Phil told the inmates at Chowchilla state prison that:
Hope is a dangerous commodity inside prison walls. To hang on to hope when everyone and everything around you is telling you “you have no hope” is courageous at best and foolhardy at worst. Hoping for a better future in prison defies reality; it assumes you have some control over your life. The criminal justice system, the guards and even most of your fellow inmates remind you daily that you are little more than “a puppet on a string.”
Reflecting on this poignant moment of address, Phil notes that his aim, when addressing this group of 700 inmates, was to give “good news for many of the prisoners about how things were finally starting to change.” After 30 years of increased penalties and policies of retribution, the societal cost and injustice of mass incarceration had finally broken through in new laws and policies designed to reduce overcrowding. Measures like Propositions 36 and 47 had passed with over 60% of the vote and the reformers weren’t finished yet. Phil had just returned from Washington D.C. where the Bipartisan Coalition on Criminal Justice Reform brought together liberals and conservatives, Tea Party members and progressives, evangelical Christians and the ACLU. The consensus was that this was the one issue both sides might agree upon; major political figures of both parties pledged their support to mend the ills of mass incarceration in our nation.
Was it wise to bring this message of hope to the prisoner in an Easter address? Phil could have “played it safe” by giving a message about the redemption of our souls and not our bodies, but “without hope the people perish.” And in prison, the hope that rests on God’s promises is a balm to the soul.
Having decided to go for it, a profound silence came over the yard as Phil continued to give details of our reform effort. Then, the moment had arrived for the call to action, “But we need your help, you can change the culture of this prison, be an agent of peace in this place, and confound those who do not believe it is possible.” For what is asked of any of us but “to act justly, love mercy and humbly walk with our God. Yes, all of you matter, you can still make a difference in this life, because God loves you just the same as anyone else.”
At Serving California, it is our prayer that the seed of hope was planted in a few men’s hearts that day. We continue to work, daily, with a sense of our role in the planting process – to spread the word, to remind others of God’s promises and to bring those seeds of hope to fruition. With God, all things are possible. Happy Easter!