By Dan Clendenin
Liz Milner currently serves as a staff chaplain with CIC Ministries (www.cicministries.org) in the Santa Clara County jails. Santa Clara county in the Bay area of California has one of the biggest jail systems in America, with about 4,000 men, women and children incarcerated. Liz works primarily with the medium level security men and all levels of female inmates, as well as the officers and staff, and the several hundred volunteers. Prior to working in the jail she served as an executive pastor in a local church, and completed her MDiv at Fuller Seminary. She is mother to three teenagers, and loves cooking, and relaxing with her husband and Finnley the dog. To contact Liz, her email is email@example.com.
Dan Clendenin: Let’s start with the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison and you visited me.”
Liz Milner: The classic verses that we quote when it comes to jail ministry! This verse brings great comfort to many of the inmates, as Jesus clearly identifies himself unequivocally with them (and note there’s no prerequisite about being proved innocent first!). It also says to us who visit that we can expect to encounter Jesus when we visit inmates, which has certainly been the case for me. My faith is often profoundly strengthened by the interactions I have in jail, and I remain humbled and moved by the inmates and their love for God in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain. It reminds me that the love of God can infiltrate any place, any situation, and helps me gain perspective in my own life and walk with God.
We often hear that Jesus was an innocent victim, but from the vantage point of the Roman state he was a criminal who was guilty of political sedition, a disturber of the Pax Romana, and so he was executed by the government.
Yes, it sometimes depends on your point of view, doesn’t it? My experience with many of the inmates I get to know is that there is a complex mixture of guilt and innocence, and it’s very hard to separate out. Often poverty, family background, societal inequalities, previous experiences of violence, abuse and much more contribute to the moment when a person chooses to commit a crime. And for those with limited resources, finding good legal counsel, finding money for bail, keeping the family afloat while you are locked up, and so on, adds further strain, which can lead to more crime and so the spiral loops downward. Occasionally there is clarity about guilt and innocence, but more often it’s a gray zone. The inmates often find the fact that Jesus was arrested and put to (unfair) trial is a point of connection to God — God has been where they are.
Peter and Paul were imprisoned, as were Andronicus and Junia, Aristarchus, Epaphrus, and many of Paul’s “fellow prisoners.” And so about fifty years after Jesus we read in Hebrews 13:3, “remember those in prison.”
It’s so easy to forget those in prison. They are locked away from society, often for years, waiting for resolution of their case. It’s one reason why I believe it’s important that everyone who says they follow Jesus should consider visiting the jail. Once you’ve been in there it’s much more difficult to forget the real people: the mothers, fathers, and children who are locked up away from those they love. Once you forget, it’s easier to stop caring. Once you stop caring, it’s easier to pass laws and legislation that perpetuate the system that makes America one of the the leading incarcerators in the world.
What do you think Jesus meant in Luke 4:18 when he quotes Isaiah 61 to describe his mission, that he came in the Spirit of God to “proclaim freedom to the prisoners.”
Ah yes, the inmates like to refer to that and sometimes use it to suggest to me and others that they get “off,” or certainly that they should not be given prison time! More often than not, though, we get to the point in conversation where they recognize a longing for internal freedom: from addiction, shame, guilt, crushing fear, anxiety, grief and much more. As they start to process the ways that they are internally imprisoned, the words of Jesus and Isaiah bring much hope and an excitement that maybe there is a way out. There is a book written by the Buddhist writer Bo Lozoff that is very popular in the jails, entitled We’re All Doing Time. We are all locked up internally in many ways. Often being thrown in jail highlights this and brings the inmates to a point of spiritual desperation and hunger, which propels them into a process of seeking God’s freedom. In a way, the incarcerated are a lot more aware of their need for God than many of us on the “outside.” They have a lot to teach us.
How did you ever get started in your jail ministry?
When I moved to America from the U.K. in 1996, I was intimidated by the American police and penal systems. I had never before seen police officers wear guns, never lived in a country that executes people, and heard many horror stories about the jails. I felt the inmates were “other.” One day, on the way to the Great Mall, I passed by the jail next door to it and felt God saying to me, “You’re scared of what’s in there? Why don’t you push into that and see if I’m alive and at work in there, too?” Eventually I found CIC and the jail ministry they do, and volunteered there for 12 years, bringing along people from the church where I worked. I discovered God was very alive and at work in prisons, and the people are not “other,” they are loving, caring, real people like you and me. About a year ago, a job opening came up and I leaped at it… I felt God’s call and I feel privileged to be able to participate in the work there.
What were some of your biggest surprises or learning curves?
Still learning! I was surprised by the amount of faith the inmates display, and how almost always they are deeply transparent and ready to share their own stories and need for God. I have had to learn to sit and listen to stories and situations of deep pain, and some situations where there is no hope for a better story this side of heaven. How do I sit with such hopelessness? Is it enough to speak of the love of God and reassure them of God’s presence with them, when I get to go back home each day to my comfortable, rich life and intact family? It can be incredibly challenging.
More specifically, tell us about your writing program.
The church I attend now, St. Mark’s Episcopal in Palo Alto, has started a weekly group in one of the men’s medium security dorms, where about 2–3 volunteers and 12 men gather weekly to explore writing as a way to express spirituality and thoughts about life. We work together with the men on exercises to encourage them to relax and focus, write about various topics such as “letters to loved ones,” “memoirs,” “prayers and mantras,” and “short stories.” We offer feedback each week and have been moved and surprised at the depth of expression that the men have shared. We’re about to start our second round of classes and are looking forward to it!
Can you share any of the writing by your inmates?
Well, there’s not space to share much, but here are two excerpts:
Hear my prayers of cries. I go through so much pain and hurt with the jail system. It seems that every time I try to get ahead in life, jail and courts take from me. I have done 25 years total of prison life. Why do the people of court not hear my pain?
I am a true man, just like anyone else. Why is it that in these lonely cells we are treated like animals? My emotions run high of what I’m about to lose or go out to nothing. Again I feel like a slave to our system! Lord, hear my prayers.
I’m sorry. Help me. Thank you!
Somewhere in this world…
Somewhere in this world there is peace love and family sharing each others’ thoughts communicating with feelings and dreaming of tomorrow
Days are present and life is wondrous.
Keeping a share in their circle, becoming closer, undividing, motivating each other in their goals and accomplishing
Somewhere in this world you are here.
So am I…
We read a lot about “mass incarceration” in America. Our incarceration rates dwarf those of other developing countries, including Russia, China, and Iran. Germany, for example, imprisons about 93 of every 100,000 adults; in America we imprison 750 per 100,000. What is the trickle down impact of this on the inmates you know?
Overcrowded jails, prisons pushing more of their inmates back into the county jail system which leads to more inmates spending more time in jails that were not designed to house them long term. Maybe one of the hardest things I see, and something that causes a lot of despair in the inmates, is how hard it is to escape the system once you are in it. So many of our men and women come back into custody because of parole violations and relatively minor infractions. Once you’re in the system it’s tough to get out of it, especially for those struggling with addictions or without many resources.
There are some important reformers out there, like Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, which focuses on addressing excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, ending the abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and advocating on behalf of children prosecuted as adults. Do you see any positive changes?
I am aware of various political movements and reforms in the pipeline, but I haven’t seen the effects of that on the ground in the jails yet. In California, some of the youth who were tried as adults are having their sentences reviewed, which is positive, but the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly! I am hopeful about new efforts to reform the bail system that unfairly impacts those with limited financial means. I would also love to see more action to take the mentally ill to effective treatment rather than jail — jail is a terrifying place for the mentally ill to be in, and sadly it’s where many end up.
What have you learned in your jail ministry? How has it changed you?
I’ve learned that God is present in every situation, no matter how hopeless it seems. I’ve learned there is nothing I can do to separate me from the love of God. And I’ve learned that Jesus lives in our jails and prisons, and I can encounter Him there when I visit.
Note: for more on this subject, see the following JwJ book reviews:
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010, 2012 revised edition), 312pp.
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 368pp.
William J. Stuntz, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2011), 413pp.
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