The name Kalief Browder won’t be known to many. He was a young man aged 16 who was arrested and accused of stealing a backpack in New York a few years ago in the year 2010. In his 3 years in jail awaiting trial, he was put in solitary confinement for 2 whole years and subjected to beatings by the guards in the notorious prison Rikers in NY. He was later released, having been found innocent, he committed suicide after period of serious mental illness in the year 2014.
This case was mentioned in January of 2016 by President Barack Obama when he announced a wide ranging reform of solitary confinement in federal prisons in America. This included an end to putting juveniles in solitary confinement, and the overall reductions in the time all inmates will spend in solitary.
There is wide-scale disquiet about the use of solitary confinement on prisoners in every country. In the USA alone there is reckoned to be 80 – 100,000 people each year serving out part of their sentences in solitary confinement. In a well known case of the murder of a prison guard the 3 prisoners who committed the crime have served between 29 and 43 years in solitary confinement, which has to be disproportionate.
It has been proven that solitary confinement in the prison system can have devastating psychological effects, leading to severe depression and a complete mental breakdown.
If prisons are meant to be corrective, re-habilitating and redemptive then clearly such policies fall short of that mark. These practices are designed to excessively punish and are cruel and harsh in the extreme.
In the loneliness of the cell individuals, especially young people, have been shown to become quite disturbed, delusional and disorientated. It seems to deprive the person of something which makes him or her human, namely another human being,
The feast that we are celebrating today once again underlines what the mystery of Christmas is all about and invites us in a simple way to think what makes each of us a human and relational being. At Bethlehem God becomes a human being like us. He who made the laws of the universe becomes subject to the laws of the universe. He is higher than everything else yet stoops down to our level and looks at us eye to eye.
One of the things that God places in all creatures and living things is their ability to relate to each other. Even animals and plants have sophisticated or elementary ways of talking to each other. But of course human beings have very sophisticated ways of communicating and relating to one another. To be a human being is to relate to the other. To be a human being we are nourished by being with, talking to and relating to one another.
In the mystery of Christ’s coming into the world and being like us, he obeys these rules. To his mother, he relates, talks, communicates, forms a bond and is one with her. He receives nourishment, human warmth and support from this relationship. We can imagine how like all our relationships this is and in another sense that this relationship takes human relationships to a new level.
If from human relationships we get so much: security, strength, love, joy fulfillment. Then what happens when that is taken away and when, instead of the richness of human relationship, it is replaced with the emptiness of loneliness, the dryness of being alone, of being forced to do without the other. In this case “loneliness” and “solitary confinement” is used by the State, with the complicity or silent approval of the people, to punish beyond what is permissible. That creates a system of justice which has a free hand to deal out retribution rather than be restorative and healing and redemptive.
In the prophecies of Isaiah it says that the messiah will come and set prisoners free. Those words have special resonance in this context. If he comes to redeem, save that which is lost, raise that which is fallen, make human that which is inhuman does this situation not call out to be saved and redeemed.
What does it mean to celebrate Christmas? Is it just to recall the event of that first Christmas, like a time or a thing recorded in history, or to say that the event is working in our world, transforming and changing it, making it new, calling it back to life.
People are still waiting to see and to hear in the full sense, still waiting to walk again in the full sense and still waiting to be set free. People are waiting for that healing and forgiveness and redemption that Christmas is all about.
Some are even in real prisoners. Youngsters who have taken a wrong path. People who have made mistakes. Men and women like any of us who have fallen on hard times. The last thing they are needing is even more isolation that solitary confinement holds out.
People start out a new year with a resolution and hope. For one I hope that people pray and work for an ending to the inhuman practice of solitary confinement in our prisons. I hope that the Christmas story really touches our heart because it is about the mercy of God who unlocks the gate and sets us free.