From the Pastor's Study
From the Pastor’s Study
Penitentiary or Correctional Centre
March 8, 2023
A few years ago the Kingston Penitentiary closed, and its inmates were moved to other prisons. Today visitors to Kingston can tour the facility and hear stories about life inside “The Pen.” Perhaps the nickname is somewhat appropriate, for the purpose of the Kingston Penitentiary was to keep people who had become dangerous to society “penned up,” so that they could not disrupt the lives of people on the street.
The word, “penitentiary,” is derived from the same Latin word that gives us “penitent” or “repentant.” Many of the early prisons were called penitentiaries, for it was believed that people who had committed violent and dangerous crimes should be separated from society and placed in isolation from the community so that they could repent of their crimes. The emphasis of the penitentiary was not on the rehabilitation of the criminal but, rather, on the protection of the community. The history of the Kingston Penitentiary shows us that the guards “helped” the prisoners to be repentant by mistreating them, sometimes horribly. One rule said that inmates were not allowed to communicate with each other, not by voice or gesture or look or else they would be subject to severe punishment. It seemed to be the thought that by being cruel to the prisoners, the guards were helping the prisoners be repentant. It’s not clear that such cruelty ever produced its intended result. The opposite is more likely to be true as inmates were developed into becoming even more hardened criminals.
The name, “penitentiary,” has fallen into disuse with only a few prisons across Canada keeping that name. Most prisons are now called “institutions” or “correctional facilities.” The word, “institution,” has its roots in the idea of “establishing or founding or setting up,” often with the purpose of accomplishing a positive goal. It is a rather generic word that doesn’t say much about the purpose of the prison. The term, “correctional centre,” however is far clearer in its intent. From the name, we can conclude that goal of the “correctional centre,” is to correct the inmates, to rehabilitate them so that they can once again enter the community without disrupting it. Thus, while there is still some unnecessary mistreatment of prisoners in the correctional centres, prisoners have the opportunity to confront and overcome their addictions, learn to think in new and positive ways and gain an education. Only a few of the inmates in the Canadian system will remain there until they die, and most will re-enter society at some point in their lives. We would hope that they would not disrupt our communities and cause danger to others as they have in the past. Thus, the focus on rehabilitation is necessary.
We can see that over the years the emphasis has changed from protecting the community from the violent person to rehabilitating the violent person so that he/she can become part of the community. Of course, even today, while the goal is to rehabilitate the criminal, keeping him/her “penned up” does protect the community, and that is important.
Perhaps some of us, as we think about this, are a little upset that we are doing so much to help those who have hurt others. Shouldn’t they pay for what they did? And perhaps they should. At the same time, it is important for us to put ourselves in the place of those who are guilty of crimes. If I committed a serious crime and if I were sent to prison, how would I want to be treated? Repentance should be part of my rehabilitation, but it should only be the first part. I would hope that I would also be given the chance for rehabilitation so that when my sentence is over, I can re-enter my community and not cause it further harm. A correctional centre doesn’t ignore the need for correction, but it does offer hope for positive change.
As we reflect on all of this, we should be moved to think about how God treats us. First, we need to recognize that God was right in removing humanity from his “community,” by “penning us up” away from him. God is holy, and there is nothing that may desecrate his holiness. Anything that is sinful will compromise the integrity of God’s holiness and must be removed from contact with that holiness just as anything that is violent compromises the integrity of community and must be removed from it. God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden, and with them all of their descendants. As sinful people we are not allowed to re-enter the realm of God’s holiness (heaven), because we will corrupt his holiness with our sin. In a sense, living outside of God’s presence is to be in a penitentiary, a place where we are given a chance to repent. And God wants that from us.
At the same time, God does not leave us in “The Pen,” bur, rather, corrects us. In theological terms, he justifies us, or, to say it another way, he makes us right again. We are rehabilitated through faith in Jesus Christ and in him we are made holy. Thus, because of Jesus, who takes away our sins, we become able to re-enter God’s presence. But that is not all, for the Holy Spirit also works in us to continue the process of rehabilitation so that we not only become holy in name but also become holy in life. We become more like Jesus.
I do not know enough about criminals and correctional centres to say how they should be run, but I do know enough about theology to say this: all sinners offend God’s holiness, and, thus, all sinners must be expelled from his presence. But God doesn’t leave us in the “penitentiary,” rotting in jail, as it were, where we can learn how bad we are, but, rather, he “corrects” us, makes us right with himself by forgiving our sin, thus making us holy and he, through the Spirit, renews us to be more and more ready to live for him and with him. By God’s grace, we are made new, and we can be thankful that this is God’s intention for us. There is a way out of the penitentiary, and for that we rejoice.