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Human Connection in Dehumanizing Places

John Lamsma has spent over 25 years in prison…ministry. He shares how pastoral care can ease the pain of incarceration, the origins of restorative justice as a focus in the CRCNA and the importance of affirming the image of God in every person, always.

The following is a transcript of Season 6 Episode 5 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

We are grateful to the Micah Center for sponsoring this season of the podcast.

Chris: Well, hello, folks! Welcome back to another episode of Do Justice, I’m your host, Chris Orme. Today we're talking about restorative justice and criminal justice reform and I'm very thankful to have our guest, John Lamsma and John, for—if folks are in the orbit of the Christian Reformed Church, John, we can say you wrote the book, you wrote the manuel on restorative justice and and becoming restorative congregations. Welcome, John, thanks for being here today.

John: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here

Chris: John, I want to talk a little bit about how you got started in prison chaplaincy. I know that's your background. But let's set the table: when we're talking about restorative justice, what are we talking about?

John: When you talk about restorative justice, generally speaking, you compare that and contrast that to criminal justice, or often retributive justice. It's the sets of questions that need to be asked, or that are asked. Criminal justice or retributive justice essentially says if a crime is committed, what law has been broken? Who committed the crime, and, if found guilty, what is the sentence? And then depending on whether it's the State or Federal, what kind of incarceration is going to happen? Restorative justice, on the other hand, asks the first question: if a crime is committed, who is harmed? The next question, then, is, who did the harming? And then the third question is, what is required to repair the harm? And of course in a—if a crime is involved, that has to be done in conjunction with courts and the legal system. You know, you cannot do that separate from the legal system, and that often, of course, poses questions, serious questions, because, especially in the United States, over 90% of the crimes that are committed and the people that are charged, they plead guilty. So a very small percentage of them go through the actual trial process. Pleading guilty, you know, all that stuff doesn't take very long and it doesn't take up much of the judge’s time. Restorative justice, on the other hand, at a minimum, if a judge approves that process it takes several hours, and not all judges are willing to do that, because you know it often gives the impression that it's soft on crime. And especially in the U.S., that is not a thing that seems to go over very well. For example, when I started with the Federal Bureau prisons back in 1978, we had 23,000 inmates in the Federal system, and then the U.S., unlike Canada, the U.S. Federal crime just depends on what law is broken. In Canada, you're doing time at a Federal prison if it's 2 years or more, provincial prisons, if it's 2 years or less. And then the federal system, it depends on what law is broken.

And so there's, you know, you could have short sentences and long sentences in States and the Federal system. And in the Federal one, when I started in 1978 we had 23,000, inmates in the bureau prisons. When I retired in 2003, the inmate population had gone up to 157,000. So a huge increase and it's gone up to as high as 215,000 or so. That's just one system, now, that's not states.

Chris: That's one system. Okay.

John: Yeah, just one. And then it's gone down to about 180, 185,000, somewhere along that line about now, I would guess. So a lot of people got locked up. It was, in essence, a punish-your-way-out-of-crime system, you know, out of the crime problem, and that obviously did not work.

Chris: Right. What does that rate look like compared to the general population? For instance, the most recent stat I could find in Canada was that the Canadian incarceration rate for both Federal and Provincial was around 127 people per 100,000.

John: Well, and I do not know what the Federal is. For a long time there were 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, which is 25% of all the people that are incarcerated in the world. So it's  a horrible number, you know. But the positive part is, I'm a member of the American Correctional Association, and I get kind of daily updates as to what's going on. A lot more time and effort is being spent in rehabilitating and opening up avenues for inmates, too, once they are released. There's more help available than there used to be. So, which is a positive sign. But the numbers are still out of this world, I think.

Chris: Yeah, it's staggering, actually. And it's, I think, for me, as I sit here, and I'm a novice to the topic, but I have been interested in it. I was in seminary for a little while, and got involved in some of this stuff, and I remember Prison Fellowship Canada talking of—they talk a lot about restorative justice, as well, and I've heard it explained, like you know, when, when we're talking about crime and punishment, that's exactly what it is. We're finding the punishment to fit the crime. And like you said, trying to punish our way out of the crime problem. But restorative. justice speaks more to God's Shalom. The idea of restoration, you know, and as Christ followers, that should be a super compelling proposition. We would hope that it would be.

John: Yeah, but so much of that, especially in a prison setting, is almost impossible to do. You know, because ideally in restorative justice the perpetrator and the victim meet face to face. You know, and very few offenders want to meet with their victims. And so that is one limit, and in a prison setting itself, very few institutions will allow a victim to directly confront his or her offender. You know, that's almost impossible. So then, what you begin to do is to say, “Okay, what are some restorative values that are common to restorative justice, the process and that are common to restorative practices” that you can begin to educate inmates so they can learn to confront their own behavior, take responsibility for their own behavior, and begin to work towards some form of resolution with himself or herself, because often, part of the issue is that offenders may not contact their victims. And so there's all kinds of legal concerns when you try to get a victim and an offender together.

Chris: Sure, oftentimes sentences come with a proviso that says, “you cannot contact.”

John: Yes, you may not. Yeah. And that's for the protection of the victim.

Chris: For sure. Okay. John, you've painted a pretty vivid picture here. I appreciate that, and I think we're on board. We're all tracking together with what we're talking about when we're talking about restorative justice. Let's rewind. Let's go back to the beginning. How did you get called into this ministry?

John: When I was in Seminary, and I don't know what it is now, when I was in seminary it was supposed to be a three year process, and during the two summers in between your first and second and second and third year you had to have summer assignments to churches. Mine were all in specialized ministries, not in churches, and one of them I was able to work in what was called the Grand Rapids Youth Ministry at the time, which was, remember, now we're talking 1970. We're talking about the hippies and the flower children and the anti-Vietnam war protesters, you know, and so it's that whole scene with whom we interacted. And we had a drop-in center in Grand Rapids at—the building is now as long gone, but you know, we would visit them in their areas, and they would drop-in. And of course, these kids were downtown kids, were in and out of jail all the time. And so I would visit them in jail and then really thought, “You know, that's kind of a ministry that I could—that with some training and some growing up and maturing that I could become involved in.” And then I took one summer of clinical training at a Federal penitentiary in the State of Washington. So a United States penitentiary in Steilacoom, Washington. And so that was a 10 week intensive training program. And the locations varied, this one happened to be in a Federal penitentiary. I really enjoyed the challenges and opportunities for ministry that were presented to me at that particular time, and felt that I could do this as a career and felt kind of drawn towards that, called to it, if you will. But at the time that I went you had to have three years in a congregation and a full year of clinical pastoral education before they would endorse you as a chaplain. Some of that has changed  by necessity, but that's where it was when I was in school. So I served the church in Canada. Really enjoyed the church and had a wonderful time with them. And then went back to the United States, took a full year of CPE and applied to several different places. Got a job offer from the State of Michigan, and then also one from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and decided to go with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, because I felt that their sense of pastoral care was better than the one in Michigan at the time. And I've not regretted it, you know, and of course there's lots of things that you're not prepared for. All the religious programming goes through the chaplain, you know. So, fortunately, when I started we only had six different faith groups, so I could take my time learning about the religious needs of six different faith groups. When I left the institution, back in the last four years I was an assistant administrator in DC, but when I left the institution in Florence, Colorado, I had nineteen different faith groups to deal with, so it got to be kind of complex, you know, to ensure that the legitimate practices within the constraints of correctional environment could be practiced. And you know, and of course not all requests were legitimate requests, so I had to do a lot of learning for other faith groups, you know, and so that was always a challenge and a rewarding one, for me

Thanks to the The Micah Centre at the King’s University for sponsoring this season.  The Micah Centre helps students and the wider community grow a global vision of justice and renewal. Through classes, workshops, internships, lectures, global learning experience, and community initiatives, the Micah Centre brings the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah’s call to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” to bear on our contemporary world of global hunger, injustice, systemic poverty, war, and violence.

Chris: What a journey! Holy moly. Can I say, like, maybe you are one of the original Jesus people? [laughs]

John: I don't know that, but certainly, you know, at the time I think I was—there were not very many Christian reformed ministers as chaplains in State or Federal provincial prisons. You know, and over the years there have not been very many. Right now, I think there's about four again,I think. So. That's really kind of neat, but we have not that many. Unfortunately, it's such a need, you know.

Chris: Yeah, so how many years, then, in the trenches for you?

John: Twenty-five years. 

Chris: Okay, so you know, we've talked a lot about, in this sort of series of podcasts, we've talked a lot about living in an era where quick fixes are appealing to our society. We want it now. We want it yesterday. We want it fixed, and for those of us who've been on the path with Jesus and in ministry we know that discipleship and working toward God’s Shalom requires, we borrowed this phrase from Eugene Peterson, “a long obedience in the same direction.” So you've been involved in prison ministry and restorative justice over a twenty-five year career and beyond so what does long obedience in the same direction mean for you? What has it meant for you as you've engaged restorative justice?

John: At it's most basic level, providing pastoral care to inmates, and all my institutions were male inmates, so if I say “he” it’s because that's my background, not female inmates. At its most basic level, the provision of pastoral care to inmates is to ease the pain of incarceration. One of the keys to ministry in a correctional setting is to really discover—and I had to do a lot of study and research before and during and I've done a lot of reflecting after, too in retirement—is to learn to describe the dehumanizing processes that inmates go through. And there's lots of different ways, a lot of books that deal with that, you know. There was one that talks about—Erving Goffman talks about total institutions. The definition of a total institution is where a person is controlled almost completely by those who are in charge. You know, in a Federal prison, for example, society says you have to account for every single inmate that comes into your institution. So, if you have 1,250 inmates in one facility, they are very clear on ensuring that there are 1,250 inmates in the facility. So during the weekdays they count five times a day, formerly 4 o'clock, 9 o'clock, midnight, 3 o'clock, and 5 in the morning, and on the weekends, because there are fewer staff they had a 10 in the morning count as well. So everything revolves around the count. Nothing happens during the count count until the count is cleared. And so the inmates, then, are  supposed to be in a particular place. They are generally in the housing units, food service inmates are in food service because they have to prepare the meals, you know, and those kinds of things. Other inmates have other jobs and they're counted, then, wherever they are. But nothing moves until the count is clear. And of course inmates are provided with clothing, all uniform clothing. They have very few possessions, as you can imagine. Every time I moved I think the moving truck probably had between 12,000 and 15,000 pounds, you know, and an inmate, when he comes into an institution, may have two  or three pounds. And, of course, part of the whole process—there's a book out that that was written, and it was called The Effects of Incarceration. Chapter four, in that particular book, talks about the pain of incarceration. And goes through a whole whole bunch of them. You know, the pain of being incarcerated. Your loss of freedom, loss of heterosexual relationships, loss goods and services, loss of safety, and loss of accountability. So there are many of those, and every one of those really deals with how dehumanizing a prison is, and I found two quotes. One of them I found the other day in a book that was called Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a letter to his son, and this is what he said: “The need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy. The slow, siphoning of the essence, really, of the nature of a human being.” And when you're in prison you're always on guard, you know. And so that siphons the essence of who you are. And this one here by a man named Charles Campbell is really the one that sums it up well for me. It says, “the most common effects of the prison experience is a slow water drip disfigurement of the human spirit. The greatest tragedy is that those who adjust to it best are damaged most.” And so part of the process of a chaplain, at least as I saw my role, is to ease the pain of incarceration. And there are a number of ways to do that.

 One of them is to affirm the fact that inmates are human beings created in God's image. And the crime that they did, and many of them are heinous, you know. You really don't want to know what many of them do to get locked up in prison. That does not negate the fact that they are still created in God’s image. And you know, as such, Lewis Smedes says it best, “it's the value of persons,” you know. Each person is created in God's image and has value simply because he or she exists. And that's what we address. And that's really where restorative values come in, because a big one of restorative values, even, for example, in restorative congregations, is that you provide respect and dignity to every person in a congregation. That's one of the bases of restorative process. And then, the other part is, then you begin to identify issues that are not restorative, that really damage the human spirit, if you will. And a number of those, probably the biggest one, it seems to me, would be not guilt so much as shame. Shame is that sense of “I'm not good enough.” All too often inmates have had horrible backgrounds, lots of abuse, and really do not feel like they're worth much at all. One of the keys then becomes, regardless of where you are, in God's eyes you are seen as a person of value, as a person who is created in the image of God, and that is not lost. And then try to work with that and in my experiences, of course, I not only dealt with Christian inmates, but I also dealt with inmates of other faith groups. The other faith groups, you really tried to say, “Okay, what can you do? How does your particular religious tradition help with increasing and establishing the value of your adherence?” Of course, for Christian inmates I had the weekly worship service. I did everything you do in a church, you know, the weekly worship service, lots of volunteers with Bible studies, and one of the things that I always told them, “Be respectful, don't denigrate other faith groups,” you know, you can't do that because they may be next door to where you're talking. That's disrespecting the value of someone else. And then slowly, if you have enough time, and they didn't always, because inmates come and go, you begin to say, “Okay, now, who are you? What is your life like as a result of what you have done? How can you deal with—” You know the term that's come up of late with people coming back from the Iraqi wars, “How can you deal with the moral injury that you have experienced? How can you grow through that?” Because you cannot do it with a victim. Inside a prison, you just can’t. There's no way to do that, but you can certainly begin to say, “Okay, how can you take the strengths of your faith? In my case, the strengths of Christianity—how can you deal with the issues that will break through shame that will also begin to heal that moral injury that you're carrying around and that really hinders and hurts who you are?” And remember, now, you're dealing in an environment that is continually emphasizing that you're—is a dehumanizing process. So you can never, never leave that. One of the things that I spent a lot of time on is that I always felt that the chapel, when it was open, was a place where inmates could let their guards down just a little bit. Not much, because that doesn't happen in prison but that they at least felt comfortable enough to let their guard down, because they knew that they were respected. They knew that their belief system was respected. And one of the things, obviously, I had lots of volunteers every place I've gone up to 250 of them, and, as you can imagine, a lot of work, but they could sure do a lot of more work than I could by myself. But one of the things that I always emphasized is you may not manipulate inmates. You know, not even the noble manipulation to try to get them to commit—trying to say, you need to follow Jesus. The big one for me was display who you are as a Christian and have that speak, because that speaks more than your words do.

Chris: Yeah, John, I wanna take the conversation outside of the prison walls for a second, because I'm loving this. And I think the way that you talk about the work that you do is super compelling and inspiring and I can see God at work in the work that you do. But what do you say to someone who says, “You know, John, I want to get where you are, but you're talking about easing the pain of incarceration and someone has made a choice, in some ways, to put themselves there.” What do you say to someone to bring them along the continuum to say, “Okay, I get what you're saying as far as you know, the punishment fitting the crime,” but how do you move someone to being open to saying, “Oh, yeah, I guess we do need to see everyone as an image bearer of God. I guess we do need to bring dignity and acknowledge the humanity of a person.

John: Yeah, and in a retributive system that's almost impossible to do, you know. And unfortunately in the Christian Reformed Church, I still think we are more retributivistic than restorative in our outlook. And it basically starts with, it seems to me, who am I in relationship to God? I'm a sinner, you know, and we're talking, to some degree, we're talking degrees of sin, but by myself I am alienated from God, and it's only through the grace of God that I can begin to deal with those issues in my life that alienate me from God. And when you take it into a correctional setting, you're not only dealing with the alienation from God, you're also dealing with the alienation from society. And both of those are there. I'm not ever advocating that some people shouldn’t be locked up, you know. I'm not saying that at all, because many people are very dangerous and incapacitation is certainly necessary for many of them. Perhaps not as many as we've been locking up, but that's another issue, you know. And so the question then becomes, if someone says, “I want to punish rather than restore.” It comes back to, “Well, what has got done with us?” God restores us. That's the whole message of the gospel, it seems to me. God restores us, and that takes many different forms. And mine happens to be in a very small part of the universe, called the Prison Chaplain. You know, congregations, the the question always comes, too: what do we do in church that helps us restore one another so the claims of the gospel become real in our lives? And we come at it obviously from many different ways. That's why we have so many different churches, you know, and that's why we have so many different serious issues over the years. The church is facing one now, and the question comes: how can we restoratively deal with issues that are brought before Synod? You know, women in office was a really big one when I started, you know, it goes back to 1944, 1972, all the way to 1995 and now we have, you know, the whole gay and lesbian era. But the question to me, then, that Synod did not address, it seems to me, is, how can we deal restoratively— lovingly, caringly—deal with those who are different from us. And that’s hard, you know there is no way around that, and reality sets in. And some people draw the line in a different place than others, and that's just part of who the Christian Reformed Church is. All churches, for that matter, but I can only speak for my own experience in the Christian Reformed Church. To deal with that, I think, is the beginning of learning to deal with easing the pain of incarceration. It's easing the pain of people with whom you have strong disagreements. That's the process of restorative congregations. You're going to have disagreements, you know, how can we lovingly agree to disagree without raising the ire, without splitting, and all of those things, it seems to me.

We're not doing very well on the outside. It's gonna be pretty hard to deal with in a different setting

Chris: Right? Let's go back to your work specifically, then, and let's end here because John, you've been doing this for 25+ years. You don't stay in something for 25+ years without having moments of hope and breakthrough, and seeing God doing some amazing stuff. Do you have a story for us of God working in a way that maybe, hey, you didn't expect when you started, but at the end of the day there was no disputing that the Spirit of God was doing something in the work that you do.

John: A good example was, an inmate who transferred from another—that happens a lot, will transfer from one institution to another, especially as crowded as institutions are. If, for example, your crime is very serious, there are five levels: minimum, low, medium, high and maximum.

If you start out at high, that's a penitentiary, but it requires more staff per inmate then the minimum security. So as soon as you've shown that you can go from, say high to a medium facility, which is where I work, they transfer you down to a less secure facility. Still very secure, but they transfer you. And I had one inmate come through there who, in the other institution, just felt horrible about what he did—he had kidnapped someone. He said there were times at night when he couldn't sleep, and of course you can't cry in front of the other inmates, that doesn’t work, and so he would cry in his bed, and slowly, with the care and love of some volunteers, him being open to  the reception of the Gospel himself, he began to change. Literally change. And so, while he was in the institution, he began to get that sense of, “I'm forgiven.” Although, again, he could not deal with the victim. And we're talking in the early eighties, and in fact, he wrote an article for the Banner. I helped them write an article for the Banner in 1981 or 1982, I think called “An Inmate Speaks.” You might even be able to look that up, but he was certainly one of them who had done that. It used to be that we wrote letters to parole boards in 198, in the Federal system, they did away with parole, so we no longer do that. But I would always write a recommendation of some kind. You know, the most basic one, of course, is “inmate so and so attended services in a particular religion,” and I would just report, because I did not know the man very well. And then the next step you usually was, “he is beginning to become effective. He's beginning to take on some sense of leadership position within the inmate organization, religious organization,” and then the next one would be, and I did not do very many of those, is that “the inmate is respected by his peers because his way of life and his beliefs are coming together.” And I saw a lot of those, where they were respected by other inmates because their particular belief system had become part of who they were. Now, remember, that's always only in an institutional setting. How they did after they left the institution, I do not know. Because in the federal system, any inmate can go anywhere in the country or other parts of the world, even, you know. So I did not often see the results in the community simply because of that, and the other one—there is prohibition of staff getting involved with former inmates, because too often it has ended up in staff members being compromised. So for me, the joy was to help inmates begin to live out their faith while they were inside and be respected by their peers. And that is a slow process. It's a slow process for us, too, and we don't have near the obstacles facing us than you do inside of an institution.

Chris: Wow! Well, John, thank you. Thanks for the story. Thank you for the time together. We’ll link a bunch of the resources that you had mentioned in the description for this episode, but where can people go to find out more about the work that you're doing?

John: Almost any Chaplaincy, contact the director of Chaplaincy Services, Tim Rekirk, in the U.S. Anyone who's on the Chaplaincy Advisory Committee. If they need to, they can contact me, my information is in the yearbook, and certainly, if someone's interested in—and there's a difference between prison chaplaincy and ministry, you know. Prison ministry, generally, is people coming in, spending a couple of hours, or sometimes spending a weekend retreat in the prison, as opposed to a chaplain, who works there full time.

Chris: Well, John, thanks. And just a reminder for folks who've been listening along, our guest today was John Lamsma. He's been doing prison chaplaincy for 25 years, and we're thankful that he's been in that space. John, thanks for joining us today.


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