Redemption is Always Possible

I have been accused occasionally of being a “softie” — trusting folks, being naive and not street smart, seeing the best in others. (In my defense, I’d say that’s not too bad for a clergy person!) And I could go on: years being against the death penalty because of the endemic racial bias within the system. And for the those truly guilty of heinous crimes, sitting in prison for the rest of your life seems punishment enough. Anyway, I don’t want to get into that argument right now because I’ve argued it for years, including while holding national church offices in years past.

I do firmly believe that for most of those currently locked up, redemption and transformation are more than possible and, interestingly, I have run into a few articles in the secular press and church publications that make the same point. All three that I’m going to cite here describe programs taking place within prison walls that seem to be effective not only in restoring a sense of dignity and humanity in those behind bars, but also in lowering rates of recidivism once the incarcerated return to their communities and cultural surrounds.

An article in the Sept. 7, 2023 issue of The New York Times, “Finding Clarity and Inspiration in Writing, While Incarcerated” (see lead photo), describes a writing program run by a former prosecutor, a recovering alcoholic and one who has battled depression and anxiety most of his life: a guy named Nate Johnson. Several times a month, Johnson visits jails in the Minneapolis area and instructs gatherings of inmates in what’s referred to as “free writing.” The article describes a recent session, where Johnson handed out paper and pencils and then uttered a simple prompt word like “hard times” or “this city:”

Immediately upon hearing his simple prompt, inmates were told to write furiously, without interruption, for five minutes. The prose didn’t have to make sense. It needn’t be good. The only goal was to turn the sequence of thoughts generated by each prompt into a string of sentences without stopping to think. ... After each burst of writing, the inmates took turns reading their compositions out loud ... tapping into what he has come to see as an extraordinary pool of literary talent brimming with insights about the criminal justice system.

For many of the incarcerated who have participated in Johnson's free writing therapy, not only have the sessions improved morale and increased a sense of comradeship, they also have increased inmates' own sense of self-worth and insight into their former lives and hopes for the future.

A second example of such programs is one I ran across in the August 6, 2023 Sunday Opinion section of the Times by Maurice Chammah entitled “The Sound of Redemption.” He begins his piece describing a Carnegie Hall performance by a former prison inmate singing before a crowd after being released from Fishkill Correctional Facility, where he had been incarcerated for a murder committed when he was 21 years old. This inmate had been the beneficiary of programs that teach composition and various instruments while folks are in prison. Chammah writes, “I’ve long admired such arts programs for cultivating hope and dignity amid all the abuse and neglect [in prisons] while reducing the chances that people will return to prison.” He also points out that the public will speak of giving “second chances” while simultaneously refusing to give former inmates jobs, returning them to the spiral of hopelessness and crime that routes them back into jail. He writes:

If we experience the art being created in those spaces ... we will know, “These are human beings, and we need to rethink whether we should be throwing them away. ... American prisons are full of earnest attempts at redemption. Listening to and sharing music may sound like a soft, superficial way of changing a broken system, but you can’t get policy change if you haven’t paved the way with culture. ... These promising experiments suggest that there are far more opportunities waiting for music producers — along with book publishers, art galleries, etc. — to discover, cultivate and promote the ocean of talent and creativity behind prison walls. ... You could argue that they need us. But the truth is we need them.

A final example that convinced me that I had to write on this topic is an article in the August issue of The Christian Century titled “Helping incarcerated men see their own worth.” This was a published interview with a former prisoner named James Enoch Banks (see second photo below) who completed a nearly 20-year prison sentence in the Torres Unit in Hondo, Texas. While he was there, Banks began creating a program for self- and group study that became known as the Men’s Workshop. The program has expanded into three additional units in the Texas prison system and recently graduated 83 men last fall.

“The primary goal is for each individual who goes through the Men’s Workshop process is to find the better part of himself,” Banks says. “When you don’t have an identity you go out and find an identity — in the poor neighborhood that surrounds you or in prison. The most convenient place to form an identity is from the negativity that’s in your face. But if you strip away the titles, the alphabet you get attached to your name ... your home boys, your tattoos — if you take away these things that cover you up, who are you on the inside? I want people to understand that I am a person. That I have feelings. That I have a family.” I am a person, a human being, like you.

Well you get the point. Transformation is always possible. By God’s grace ... by God. Transformation and redemption are always possible. For former prisoners ... for you and for me. Yes?

  • I received a very thoughtful response to this article from a reader who is a Federal District Judge in Michigan. Click here to read. You're always welcome to contact me for comment!


Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.