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No Such Thing as "Away"

Every few days, I take a small metal pail full of vegetable scraps and fruit peels to a black compost bin in my backyard. Thermometers in Edmonton dip well below zero Celsius in January, so it requires some resolve to take grab the bin’s soon-to-be-freezing metal handle and take food scraps to the compost bin rather than dumping them in my waste basket. When the temperatures get so cold that my beard freezes, I find myself asking: Does it really matter how I throw this stuff away?

I think it does matter. Why? Well, a lot hinges on that word ‘away’. When we say we’re throwing something away, what we really mean is that we’re throwing something into a waste basket, and eventually into a landfill. There is no such thing as ‘away’; in my case, ‘away’ is a growing pile of garbage on the outskirts of Edmonton that was once thriving farmland. Composting is one way – a very small way, admittedly – that my family can slow the need for more landfill space, while also contributing to the health of our garden.  

Much of my time is spent journeying with folks leaving prison and resettling in Edmonton. On a recent walk out to the compost bin, I asked myself: Is there some connection between my work with these men and women and my family’s compost bin?

When we ‘put someone away’, we actually send them to a real place, surrounded by real people, paid for by our real tax dollars.

When we talk about crime and criminals, that word ‘away’ comes up a lot. ‘Put her away!’ ‘Lock him away!’ But, just as with our garbage habits, when it comes to our criminal justice policy, there is no such thing as ‘away’. When we ‘put someone away’, we actually send them to a real place, surrounded by real people, paid for (very expensively) by our real tax dollars. And the way we as communities shape those real places has real implications for our communities’ well-being. If our responses to crime seek to mend broken relationships—economic, social, or personal—then they can be one way to heed Micah’s call to ‘do justice’.

Done well, responses to crime like incarceration (or, preferably, more restorative processes) can be opportunities to foster healing and accountability in offenders. Just as importantly, they can encourage an offender’s successful transition into our communities.


Let’s focus on prisons (though there are a host of much more restorative responses to crime than incarceration). Prisons can focus on programming that addresses some of the root causes of crime: substance abuse, personal or historic trauma, lack of education or job skills. They can make resources available that can guide inmates’ healing paths: Indigenous elders, counsellors, spiritual directors, pastors. They can create space for inmates to maintain life-giving relationships with positive friends, family, and the land. They can take into account the structural injustices that are tied so closely to crime, like systemic poverty and historic traumas like Canada’s Indian Residential School system. And, perhaps most importantly, prisons can build partnerships with local housing, employment, and social agencies to ease the transition from prison to the wider community.

All of that may sound like wishful thinking. But in the not-too-distant past, Canada emphasized many of these things, and had a correctional system that was revered by many criminologists around the world. And prisons like Bastoy, Norway continue to provide humane environments where inmates can gain life skills, explore personal change, and prepare for a new life on the outside. The director of the prison in Bastoy’s motto is ‘Treat people like dirt, and they will be dirt. Treat them like human beings, and they will act like human beings’.

When it comes down to it, do we believe that human beings are disposable? Can human beings be locked ‘away’, thrown away, left to waste? If we refuse to consider more restorative alternatives to prison, and if we continue to send our neighbours to what amount to expensive holding cells to aimlessly count the days until their release, then it seems our answer is ‘yes’.

When it comes down to it, do we believe that human beings are disposable?

But there is no such thing as ‘away’. And for Christians, no human being is disposable. All lives have value, and point in some way to the God whose image they bear. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: ‘all human beings are people for whom Christ died.’ The Christian call to ‘do justice’ demands that we take up the complicated and difficult work of crafting responses to crime—including prison systems—that are humane, life-giving, and healing, so that all in our communities have the opportunity to flourish.

It may mean creating a system that is so radically different than our current correctional system that it does not warrant the name ‘prison’. 

Perhaps we can take our cue from the apostle Paul. Paul invited his fellow Christian Philemon to welcome back the runaway slave Onesimus ‘no longer as a slave but as a brother,’ even though Onesimus’ actions legally warranted punishment, even jail time. Perhaps we can work toward prison systems—and accompanying transitional programs—that aim to welcome back our brothers and sisters ‘no longer as inmates or former inmates, but as brothers and sisters.’ 

[Image: Flickr user erin, under Creative Commons license]

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