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Redeeming power of art: the view from prison

In this country haunted by crime, our prisons are signs of contradiction dotting the national landscape. In our fear, some of us want to lock up, preferably for life, all the threats and supposed threats to our own good lives. Others of us are bleeding hearts eager to give the world another chance. Some of us see big profits in private prisons, or opportunities for promotion growing out of putting bad guys behind bars. It’s a sad commentary on our development as a species that criminals and those dealing with them are so large a proportion of our population, that crime and punishment are so front and center in our national life.

So one searches the grim picture for relief.

Crime is rampant. Sometimes it is committed out of weakness but it is more often wanton and cruel. We must confront these realities and fit the punishment to the crime. This is part of our human project, part of our Christian project. There were a great many things Jesus did not get specific about, but he did advocate visiting those in prison.

Justice is high on the list of things we all should aim for. But redemption, too, is at the heart of the Christian message, and redemption isn’t worth the ink unless we believe that no one is beyond its reach; if redemption isn’t potent medicine, then it’s no more than human outreach, like the justice system.

For many the hard place to start is the truism that prisoners are people, too.

So much, we hear, goes on in prisons, much of it unspeakable and perhaps inexplicable except for those who have been through it.

But one doesn’t expect art. Art might be a door for us to enter prison, just as it is a window for some lucky prisoners to look out.

The rest of our cover story speaks for itself.

Far be it from NCR to call the Bush campaign inept, but just look at them. When George W. ran into a barrage of criticism for visiting the ardently anti-Catholic Bob Jones University, the campaign’s idea of damage control was to send a letter of apology to New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor (who is very seriously ill) and, they said, “other Catholic leaders.”

NCR’s Arthur Jones contacted the Bush headquarters in Austin. The letter, he was told, did not go to any other “Catholic leaders,” only O’Connor. Only the churlish might surmise that the proud recipient was O’Connor -- whose diocese does not extend as far as South Carolina -- on account of New York being a vital prize on the way to the Republican nomination.

Had they checked around, the Bush handlers would have discovered that the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops lives right in Texas: Galveston-Houston’s Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza.

Paul Jeffrey’s recent story told how the U.S. military has long used the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for practice bombing -- yes, from planes -- and how the islanders and a band of activists had set up camp to thwart the bombardments (NCR, March 10).

Now comes word that our public representatives have been looking elsewhere for a solution. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) has returned from a trip to Scotland and Sardinia seeking alternative sites to Vieques Island. He is said to have reported back that the sites were not suitable.

One wonders, did the people of Scotland and Sardinia know they were being considered for such a signal honor.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000