While studying theology as a Jesuit scholastic, I was blessed to have James Keenan, S.J., as a teacher. Father Keenan taught that sin in the Gospels is always about not bothering to love. The clearest example of this is found in Matthew 25, where Jesus says those who never bothered to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick or visit the imprisoned are condemned to hell for their indifference to human suffering.
Perhaps nowhere in our contemporary culture in the United States is the contrast between Christian love and hellish indifference more stark than in our prison system. In Refuge in Hell, the Rev. Ronald Lemmert, a prison chaplain, offers us a glimpse of the price one pays to follow the Gospel of Christ, taking the reader on a Dante-esque journey through the circles of hell in a modern-day Inferno, Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
As a fellow priest and prison chaplain who has devoted most of his ministerial life to working in jails and prisons, I can attest that what Father Lemmert writes is spot on: “Prison is the closest thing to hell on earth.” His descriptions of daily life in prison and his compassionate description of the prisoners he met provide a glimpse for the reader into life in prison that few outside the walls of the criminal justice system can see.
“Prison is the closest thing to hell on earth.”
The most poignant moment comes at the end, when the author describes vividly just how hellish the system is: the incompetent, lazy and often corrupt correctional employees; the cruelty and indifference of many mental and medical health providers; and, sadly, even some chaplains who do nothing more for the inmates than pick up a check each week. I know from my own long experience that his descriptions are no exaggeration.
While he provides a very clear, sharp and critical view of the prison system in New York’s “Dept. of Corruptions,” people who are ignorant of or indifferent to the suffering of prisoners are not likely to pick up a prison memoir. What is needed is a book that will reach a wider audience and hold a mirror up to all of us—a book that forces us to grapple with our societal failure to bother to love. This failure has created pockets of hell like Sing Sing and is spilling over poisonously into all the other areas of our selfish culture. Father Lemmert’s book serves as a warning, a kind of canary in the coal mine. Sadly, no one listens to canaries.