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Meeting Christ in Prison

By Lonnie Valentine

As a conscientious objector to military service, I did alternative service in a “maximum-security mental institution,” a prison by any other name. As I began work there, I thought I would be one of the good guys in a bad system. I was young and filled with the optimism that comes with youth. I thought that practicing nonviolence would solve our many social problems. And, to some degree, that was — and is — true. In my situation, treating the inmates with respect and courtesy when they often did not receive this from staff or other inmates did make a difference. Trying to stay calm in tense situations, humor and ignoring one’s ego also helped. Since such attitudes sometimes got me in trouble with other staff, I figured I might as well speak up when I saw things being done in a less than humane way. All in all, I had some confidence in my ability to enact peace in this prison. I was mistaken.

On one apparently calm day, a scuffle broke out between two of the inmates. I was first on the scene, but things had calmed down before I arrived. One of those involved, Steve, was a large, gentle, mentally retarded and mentally ill guy on heavy medication who was nick-named “Baby Huey” after his resemblance to that cartoon character. He was one of whom you would say, “He would not hurt a fly.” So, of course, others sometimes picked on him. That’s what I assumed had happened here, but no one saw exactly what had happened, and, after all, things were calm again. Except for Steve. He was agitated, frightened and trembled. As he turned to go past me back to the common room, he was muttering “I will be O.K., I just need to go to the day room . . . I will be O.K. . . .” He was certainly no threat to anyone, and I figured that was the end of it. I was mistaken.

The ward charge came into the hallway and told Steve to go to his room, which was the protocol when there was an incident like this. However, Steve was too upset and confused and kept saying “I will be O.K. I just need to go to the day room.” So, he walked by the ward charge. At that point, another staff member came into the hall. Though the ward charge did not seem upset about Steve ignoring his order, the other staff was not one to let go by an opportunity for enforcing the rules. He proceeded to jump on Steve, put him in a chokehold and take him down to the floor. I was shocked and I felt something like I imagined Steve felt: upset and confused. At this point the protocol was again clear: any physical contact between staff and “inmate” meant that the inmate went into a seclusion cell. So, at the same time I was thinking how stupid it was for the staff member to have attacked Steve, I found myself helping put Steve in his cell.

After this I wandered back into the common room, still a bit shaken up. One of the inmates commented on my helping put Steve in a cell and said to me: “I was surprised to see you do that.” I replied: “Me too.” Recovering a bit, I felt sorry for what I had done, and vowed to make it right. I had not been in such a situation before, and soon realized that the guys that operated the maximum-security ward in this maximum-security hospital prison were coming down to get Steve. So, I thought, I will be there for Steve this time. Again, I was mistaken.

Not having seen the maximum-security guys at work, I was once more surprised. As Steve sat in the corner of the seclusion cell, looking at this point terrified and visibly trembling, about half a dozen large security folks lined the little cell, looking down on him. Of course, it was obvious to anyone that Stave was no threat, except maybe to himself from his confusion and fear. As I stood next to the lead member of the security team, my mouth fell open as this guy began to berate and threaten Steve: “If you so much as move a muscle, I will rip your head off.” And that was a bit milder than some other things that were said. Once again, I found myself dumbfounded — and remained silent. To make sure there would be no trouble, and, I think, to impress other inmates, Steve was strapped down to a gurney to be wheeled down the long main corridor to the maximum-security ward. Recovering somewhat, I said I would go down with Steve. I thought I might give him some comfort and reassurance. Yet again, I was mistaken.

I walked silently by Steve for a while, thinking about what had happened. I felt ashamed for not speaking up and trying to help solve this situation with good assertive nonviolence. I began to weep a bit and looking down at Steve said that I was sorry. Steve — this person classified as mentally retarded and mentally ill, on lots of medication, and tied down — looked up at me sympathetically and said: “It’s alright little guy, I will be O.K.” At that point, I lost it, put my hands over my face and cried. As I quickly recovered my composure, I thought: Christ became Steve, and now Steve has become Christ for me. Like Peter, I denied him three times: when he was thrown to the floor, when I helped put him in seclusion and when I failed to speak up when he was threatened by the maximum-security team. However, Christ was still there for me in Steve. And that’s how I met Christ in prison.