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Remembering Those in Prison

John Schuurman offers a reminder of injustices inflicted on prison inmates by an imperfect justice system and highlights an initiative Christians are taking in response.

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Remembering Those in Prison July 30, 2018  |  By John Schuurman
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On August 10, at least a dozen other cyclists and I will ride from Hamilton to Toronto to mark International Prisoners Justice Day. We will be cycling with a letter that will be delivered to Premier Doug Ford. 

We’ll be requesting changes to policies that cause inmates, even those awaiting trial on relatively minor charges and who are therefore legally still innocent of any crime, to lose their housing in addition to their freedom. 

We’re doing this partly as a matter of simple justice. Almost 100 per cent of provincial inmates will be released back into our communities within a couple years. Yet statistics show over 4,000 Ontarians, nearly a quarter of all inmates, become homeless every year directly because of their incarceration. That is an injustice in our corrections system that cannot be justified and must be corrected. 

Beyond that, we believe that God’s call to remember them means preparing our society to be a place where they are given the reasonable opportunity to successfully reintegrate. 

Right now, many don’t get that opportunity. Far from it. 

Randy’s story is a common one. Randy, let’s protect his privacy by calling him that, was charged with theft under $5,000 in Hamilton. He was living in an average one-bedroom unit and was employed in sales.

When the arrest was made, Randy did not have his wallet with him. He was incarcerated at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre on Barton Street East. Of course, like all Canadians under Canada’s Charter, Randy was presumed innocent until proven guilty. But hearings and trials at Hamilton’s John Sopinka Courthouse are booked months in advance because of caseload backlog, a situation that’s been true across Ontario for many years. 

So, Randy sat incarcerated for four months awaiting his trial and verdict. As with anyone who doesn’t show up to work for four months, he lost his job. And as with anyone who can’t pay rent for four months, he was evicted from his apartment. His belongings, including family mementos and his wallet with all his ID, were thrown out.  

When Randy had his day in court, he was released. Now homeless, he was put on the streets with only the clothes that he was arrested in, facing a world that expects a peaceful reintegration as a contributing member of society as fast as possible. Randy’s own desire to succeed in becoming that reintegrated, contributing member of society, when he had no place to stay, no ID and no income, is why many former inmates say the hardest day of incarceration is the day it ends.

It does not matter whether Randy was released for time served after being found guilty of something warranting less than four month’s incarceration, or because he was found not guilty. Both outcomes are common enough. 

Last week, I talked to a man who pleaded guilty to charges that he was not guilty of in order to avoid Randy’s fate because he knew how common it was. Here is the decision he faced. He could lose his home and possessions during four to six months of incarceration while awaiting the justice he deserved by a not-guilty verdict. Or he could carry around an unwarranted criminal record by pleading guilty in order to keep his housing and belongings.

Another man named Evan explained to me that he receives Ontario Disability Support Payments because of a diagnosis that prevents him from being able to work. Like all ODSP recipients, he receives a shelter allowance that can be directed towards rent costs as well as a basic needs allowance that can be directed towards groceries, laundry or clothes at the recipient’s discretion. 

ODSP, like Ontario Works, cuts off the entirety of recipients’ income when they become incarcerated. The presumption is that their food and shelter needs are looked after in jail. Without Evan’s shelter allowance, his wife could not pay the rent on her own. As a result, while Evan was incarcerated, his family ended up on the streets. He had nowhere to go upon his release.

Where is the justice in this? And how should Christians in particular respond? Consider the insight from one of the most familiar passages of the Bible, the climax of the Gospel story when Jesus has been hung on the Cross to die that first Good Friday. It features a handful of characters and, as far as we can tell, only a single human character who recognizes Jesus as King. 

Jesus, the prophet who attracted an empire-threatening following by his divine miracles and his promise of a new kingdom for the oppressed people of Israel, was arrested. His escape tactics from the traps of the Pharisees seemed to have finally run out. Perhaps the Roman kingdom was more powerful than the one Jesus promised after all. 

By the time he was on the Cross, even his own disciples – those closest to his ministry and divine revelation – had deserted him for over 12 hours. The disciple John and a few grieving women appear to be the only attendees of Jesus’ public execution who had been his followers. Even they seem to have been silenced by mockers highlighting the contrast between Jesus’ divine power to save others during the previous years and his inability to save himself, hanging weak on the Cross. 

All the others present had been convinced that he was a farce all along. It would have been during precisely this period of about 48 hours between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection that the Kingdom of God seemed the most distant to humanity.

But at this hopeless moment, “the criminal on his other side said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’” (Luke 23:42)

When I place myself in the crucifixion story, I respond to the criminal: “When you come into your what?! Those who were supposed to sit at this king’s right hand gave up on him, and in a couple hours you will both be dead!”

When I place myself on the Resurrection side of this story, I marvel at our God who used a criminal to bring prophetic words when nobody else would, teaching each of us a lesson in faith.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

In response to the question asked in faith, Jesus promises remembrance to a criminal. In a later epistle, Paul instructs all believers regarding this aspect of Jesus-following to “Remember those who are in prison as if you are there with them.” (Hebrews 13:3)

“Remember those in prison.” 

“Remember me.” 

What does this look like? What does this mean for Canadians in 2018?

The Canadian Church is taking up this call in a wide variety of exciting and fruitful ways.

The cycle ride from the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre to Queen’s Park in remembrance of prisoners who are our brothers, sisters and neighbours is part of taking up that call. 

It will not be a protest. It will be a display of public support from concerned citizens who want to see justice offered to some of the most forgotten people in our society. 

It will be a way to say: “Remember me.”

Ride for Reform needs your support. You can learn more about Ride for Reform and how to support it at Rideforreform.com

You can also get in touch by emailing rideforreform@gmail.com or following Ride 4 Reform on Facebook.


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