A Biblical Look At Our Prison System

by Rev. Steven M. Schlei

Did you know that the United States of America operates one of the largest human zoo facilities in the world? I am referring to the prison system in this country. Why is the prison system a human zoo? The analogy is obvious. We keep men and women penned in iron and cement "cages" just like animals at our local zoo. One major difference between our human zoos and our animal zoos is that at least the animals are on display. People go to see them and give them some loving attention. The purpose of the prison system, on the other hand, is to isolate criminals from society, to put an insulating barrier around them so that they might be reformed to be let loose on society when their "rehabilitation" has been completed.

Does this "ingenious" human system work? Let us examine our analogy again. Living in a zoo may make an animal docile after a while, but it does not "tame" it. That is obvious by the very fact that we do not release lions and bears to roam freely in the park after they have been "rehabilitated" by their cages for a few years. Little more should be expected from the prison system. Locking men away in iron cages does nothing to "tame" them. In many cases, it only intensifies their evil.

The prison system in this country is a mess, and it does not take a genius to see that our "correctional facilities" are a sad joke. In some places, it has become so bad that judges put petty thieves on probation rather than send them to prison where these small-time operators might very well become big-time crooks with the training that they can receive in these tax-financed "schools of crime." Inside, the prison is a jungle where men often have to fight for their lives. Those who do not conform to the "system" imposed by their prisoners can be hurt or killed in prison "accidents." Racial violence, homosexual gang rape and assault, use of drugs, and revenge slayings are not uncommon. Our "correctional institutions" have become centers of violence and unspeakable savagery. Witness the riots in recent times in Attica and the New Mexico State Penitentiary in which the "stool pigeons" were brutally murdered in revenge slayings. After a period of such enlightening education, our parole boards unleash these caged humans on our society with the sentimental hope that they have "seen the light" somehow.

Because we have lived with the prison system for so long, we are perhaps prone to simply accept it as a necessary evil. After all, some might conclude, this is just one of the costs that has to be borne in order to restrain crime. Yet, we must ask whether our prison system has done much restraining. Many prisoners have openly admitted that they found themselves in prison because they were sloppy in their lives of crime and had not perfected their skills. Through mutual exchange of ideas with one another in prison, where they have plenty of idle time to talk and think, they will sharpen their abilities so that they do not make the same mistakes again. Prisons become literal training grounds for more professional criminals. These men become even more hardened and brutal in having to endure the system. Prisons do not restrain, but actually foster crime.

Despite the cry from some to build more and better prisons (we are already spending over $5 billion dollars annually on our prison system), crime in this country continues to rise at an alarming rate. According to recent statistics, a crime against property is committed in the United States every three seconds. This includes theft, burglary, fraud, embezzlement, etc. That is about 29,000 "minor" crimes a day. In addition, violent crime in which a person is assaulted or killed is committed every 30 seconds in this country. Some 20,000 murders are committed every year in the United States. Murders have approximately doubled in the last fifteen years.

These are frightful statistics. To put this statistic into more imaginable terms, we could say that about one-half of the population of Bismarck, North Dakota, or two-thirds of the population of Minot, North Dakota is destroyed by murder every year. In the whole Vietnam War, which lasted over a decade, our country lost some 50,000 men. In three years time, Americans willfully murder more people than we lost in that entire war. This is staggering to comprehend.

Biblical Penology

It is quite plain to the objective observer that our present system is doing very little to actually deter crime. Criminals no longer really fear our system of justice. Judges can in some cases be bought. Courts are so jammed that plea bargaining and reduced sentencing are routine matters. If in the rare case a man is sent to prison, he only learns to hone his skills to a fine art. There must be a better answer, and thankfully there is. It is found in the last resource that is usually consulted when humans are in trouble and need wisdom-- the Bible.

What would we Christians do? I maintain that we should not join with those many conservatives who are crying for bigger and better prison systems along with stiffer penalties (i.e. longer prison terms). Imagining that man with a "few more dollars" can build a better human zoo is about as foolish as thinking that the Federal Government is really going to someday repay all the massive debt that it has accumulated. Prisons are an ungodly creation of man. As long as men persist in being ungodly by ignoring God in building their own social order, they will suffer the chaotic fruits of their evil systems.

In biblical law, prisons as we know them and prison sentences are unknown. Prisons were quite common in the nations surrounding Israel, but they were not a part of Israel's law system. That, of course, was not the result of the fact that all Israelites loved God and kept His Law from hearts inspired with gratitude for His goodness. It was because God in His infinite wisdom saw fit to restrain evil in society another way. We would do well in our own nation to take note of this fact. Deuteronomy, chapter four holds up the Law of God as a model for the nations of Israel:

Deuteronomy 4:5-8, "Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?"

If Israel would keep the Law of God, even the heathen nations would be forced to recognize the surpassing wisdom of her ordinances. Verse eight makes it clear that no nation with its humanly derived law could match Israel's judicial system for "righteousness." The Law given to God's people was a model standard of equity and justice. Our modern criminologists have much to learn from the Scriptures. We Christians would do well to realize that we have a tremendous heritage of wisdom in the Bible. Instead, we are ever so prone to "baptize" the humanistic reasoning of our culture as the way to do things, even the Christian way of dealing with life.

The biblical system of penology was quite simple. Its basic principle was that of restitution. In Exodus 22, this principle is affirmed again and again. In that passage, we are given case law examples of how Israel was to deal with certain crimes. For instance, if a thief stole a sheep, he was to restore to the victim two sheep-- the one stolen and another (Exodus 22:4). The risk for the thief was thereby maximized, and the expense for the owner of prosecution and conviction was reduced.

Under biblical law, the thief would not be thrown into prison to spend his time in unproductive idleness. Instead, he was forced to compensate the victim of the crime for the trouble incurred. This procedure very effectively punished and chastened the thief in his crime, and yet he remained a productive member of society. Justice was firm and yet merciful. Robbers were not treated as animals to be put into cages, but as responsible human beings who had to bear the consequences of their sin.

God's Justice

There is a clear contrast between the beauty of the biblical system and our present day foolishness. Our American system actually subsidizes crime in various ways. In the Bible, the criminal paid for his own crime, but in America the victim, the society as a whole, or both, bear the burden. If a criminal steals from someone's home, the victim either bears the loss himself, or if he is fortunate enough to have insurance, he and the other policy holders bear the cost of the theft in higher insurance premiums. Some legislators in State and Federal governments are now pushing for the taxpayer to foot the bill for crime by having the government compensate the victim of the crime. This proposed method of equity would add billions of dollars in costs to the government, and the potential for abuse is astronomical. What would stop the criminals and "victims" from getting in cahoots to execute a crime only to split the proceeds of the government reimbursements?

Then in our society, if by some stroke of "bad luck" the thief is caught, convicted, and sentenced to prison, it is the taxpayer who again is taken for a ride. Not only must he foot the bill for the crime through higher insurance rates or government restitution programs, but when the thief is convicted and sentenced the taxpayer must pay the enormous expense of feeding, clothing, housing, and guarding the criminal. The grim irony of the whole situation is that if the cost to the taxpayer for caring for the prisoner was simply given to the criminal in a cash payment, the thief could live quite comfortably in freedom as a retiree with a guaranteed income. Instead, we house him in a cage of boredom and sharpen him into a crime expert.

It might seem that this nightmare of humanistic creation is bad enough, but the end has not been reached. Many sociologists are now proposing that society should actually make reparation payments to the criminal! After all, it is really society's fault and not the criminal's that he went astray. Society must atone for it's guilt not only by making payments to the victims in crime, but even to it's perpetrators. Restitution has gone full circle! Victims of crime are further victimized through higher taxes so they can make restitution to the poor benighted criminals who robbed them. Even now, many convicts are building nice bank accounts in prison from payments made to them by Social Security and other federal programs which pay them allowances for their work.

Our present system is in shambles. We must return to biblical law to establish a model, workable system for meting out justice. We Christians should be the very first ones to direct our society to the sanity of biblical law. Either we will seek to apply biblical standards to civil law and jurisprudence, or we will simply by default abdicate this area of responsibility to unbelieving humanists to tinker with their godless schemes which rob us and destroy our society. May the Lord deliver us from the insane asylum of human wisdom.

Man's Objections

Some might object to this thesis, insisting that we must have prisons. After all, what would we do with the really hardened criminals who commit murder or some other high crime? The Bible does not leave us in the dark on that question. There were a number of criminal offenses in Israel for which God prescribed the death penalty. The State was to execute certain criminals in the name of God. In fact, to neglect to bring capital punishment on certain criminals was not only inhumane, but it was an offense to God Himself. God was angry with those who did not punish criminals as He prescribed. Not to execute those criminals who were deserving of capital punishment actually polluted the land in God's sight and brought down His wrath on its inhabitants:

"Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses... [Y]ou shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.... So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel" (Numbers 35:30-31, 33-34).

Another similar objection which is often heard is that the Mosaic Law was cruel. The famous lex talionis, the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, is often cited as an example of outmoded biblical barbarity. However, to apply this principle in a strictly literal fashion is to misunderstand that law. It is no more to be taken literally than when Jesus said we should pluck out our eye if it causes us to stumble into sin. We know that Jesus did not mean for us to take Him in a literal fashion, for to dismember one's body would violate the Law of God. What Jesus demanded of us in most graphic language is that we take drastic action if necessary to avoid sin. We must not toy with temptation but do everything in our means, even at our own inconvenience and hurt if necessary, to avoid evil.

Likewise, we know that the lex talionis is not to be understood in a simplistically literal fashion, for such a judicial rendering would violate the principle of restitution in the Law. If one were to maliciously cut off another's hand, it would not help the victim if the evil doer simply had his hand removed. A criminal minus one hand could not very well repay his victim for he would not be so readily employable. The principle of lex talionis simply stressed that there must be equity in law administration. No longer could men be able to brag that wrong done them would be avenged seventy-seven fold (Genesis 4:24). If a man cut off the hand of his neighbor, he could not be killed as a penalty. Yet, he might have to suffer the penalty of whipping and being forced to support the victim with monetary payment for the rest of his life for the lost opportunities in his regular profession. In Islamic law, for an example, a thief is punished by having his hand cut off. That quite effectively restrains theft, but it is a punishment that by biblical standards is unjust. We as Christians must be quick to defend the wisdom of God and never leap on the bandwagon of its critics.

Many Christians breath a sigh of relief when in Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus seems to abrogate the supposed barbaric principle of lex talionis. Nothing could be further from the truth. The principle of fair administration of justice and punishment could never be abrogated, and Jesus made it clear that His attitude was one of highest respect for the Old Testament Law (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus, instead, was attacking the common misconceptions and misapplications of God's Law in His day. The Pharisees and their followers misused this law as a principle of personal revenge, so that they could give "tit for tat" to those who harmed them. A law which was meant to be a guide to judges rendering judicial decisions and handing down sentences was never meant to be a rule of our personal relationships. The function of civil government is to administer the vengeance of God upon evil doers (Romans 13:4), but not so with individuals. Our duty is to love our neighbor as the Lord Jesus has instructed us.


My proposal to do away with prisons may sound radical. My proposal that the criminal should make restitution for his crime may sound absurd. My proposal that the death penalty should be reinstituted for many crimes may even sound un-Christian. Let us therefore ask the question in a different way: Can the Law of God given to Israel, which was to be a model to the nations, be radical, absurd, or un-Christian? The answer should be obvious.

If we have any doubts about the wisdom of God's Law, we need to take a hard look at the present-day fruits of man's judicial system. No amount of money and human brilliance will redeem a social disaster. God's Word provides the building blocks which can reconstruct broken human lives and devastated societies. We need not look elsewhere for another foundation.

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