To protect his privacy, I’ll call him R.M. If you saw his mugshot on the nightly news, you’d shake your head and maybe feel a little relieved that such a person is now off the streets. You know the guy: head tipped back slightly as if in defiance, slung down in gang tattoos, the icy stare of a stone-cold killer. As the anchor reads the story of his crime, he appears as part of a class of beings wholly alien to us—the “bad guys” in the simple-minded language of law enforcement.
R.M. himself is the worst of the worst—in prison’s upside-down value system, the best of the best, the elite—a carnale, a “patched” member of the Mexican Mafia, like a “made” man in the Italian mafia. (“Patched” refers to the tattoo placed on full members; the punishment for getting this tattoo without earning it is death). Like most members, he was recruited during one of his many stretches in prison, a criminal career that began in the mid-1980s. His fellow inmates respect and fear him on the basis of his reputation alone.
R.M. is also one the best people I’ve ever known—either in prison in the course of my twelve-years as a correctional educator, or outside its walls. In the late 1990s in a prison complex reserved for the most hard-core gang members, R.M was converted to Christ Jesus and turned from gang activity. Like all prison gangs, Eme (Spanish for MM—Mexican Mafia) is blood in, blood out. Renunciation will cost you your life. You flag down a Correctional Officer and tell him you need off the yard—to go into protective segregation. But the gangs will find a way to get to you. They’re patient. One kid I know of was in a protective unit, a renouncer; some of the guys from the regular yard, gang members, sent word to him that everything was “cool,” he was forgiven, he could come back to the yard. They were friends; he agreed, and signed the waivers. They stabbed him to death in the middle of the recreation field to make a statement and an example.
Another kid was a student of mine when I taught on a protective segregation yard. He had been a member of a small though particularly vicious street gang but had renounced years ago. “Lumpy,” his prison nickname, was just a goofball when I knew him, a likeable goofball. When he’d been released, homeless, and waiting for his brother to get out too so that they could be together on the streets, some gangbanger shot him dead on sight. “Did you hear? They got Lumpy.” The whole yard was talking about it but no one was shocked but me.
When R.M. was converted and announced that he wouldn’t participate in the gang anymore, he chose not to go into protective segregation. It was certain death. He waited for the hit to come… told me it had been a kind of act of trust in God. But for some reason, the hit never came. The gang unit told him he was crazy not to go into PS, but that’s what he did—seventeen years ago. He’s served two stints as one of my teacher’s aides over the past seven years, and working with him day in and day out, I can say for sure that he is one of the few examples of an authentically converted heart that I have ever seen.
Because of him, and many others like him, I no longer think of inmates as I used to. When my wife and I did dog rescue, you’d occasionally come across a dog who had been so abused and neglected that it couldn’t be rehabilitated, no matter what. It would be too irresponsible to adopt it out even if its behavior seemed totally changed. Too dangerous. So it’d live the rest of its life in the fenced-in grounds of the owner of the dog rescue, running with the other abused animals and the half-dog, half-coyotes common in rural Arizona. For a long time, I thought of inmates in just this way. Almost all of them come from the subcultures of poverty that characterize an enormous, though largely unseen or unacknowledged, portion of our society. For these guys, joining a gang as a kid is as normal as joining the Navy would have been to you and me out of high school. It’s a support network, which they didn’t find in their dysfunctional families and neighborhoods and schools. Or they just ran around on the streets and absorbed its culture of violence and crime. Either way they weren’t cared for properly, not even by the policies of the welfare state which has created a culture of dependence. Abused and neglected, they became antisocial, misfits, and in many cases too dangerous to be on the streets.
But no amount of theological study has done as much as working in a prison to convince me of the truth that all of us are made in the image and likeness of God and are redeemed by his Son, Jesus Christ. Every facet of these men’s souls strains toward repentance and conversion, some through a thicker darkness than others, but this undeniable desire for redemption makes them all the same, and of us the same as them, too—our conceits aside. Through God’s hidden ways, R.M. accepted the gift of salvation and started on the path toward restoration. Not in a dozen years of working with inmates on a personal basis day in and day out have I ever known a better example of a man who has tried his utmost to reform himself than R.M. The virtues, he has. Righteousness—more than me, and that is not mock humility speaking. But it’s not enough.
Since converting 17 years ago, R.M. has been recommitted several times. Born into a gang-controlled neighborhood, poverty and an abusive household devastated by alcoholism and drug use, the odds were already great that he would join a gang and wind up in prison. After prison, when he was still young, he was a felon, making it nearly impossible to find a job that paid a living wage. Dope is easy money, so you live the life for as long as it lasts, then when the other shoe drops, which it always does, it’s back to prison—which by now is familiar, even normal. Many people thrive there. Some get rich off of running dope in the system. For others it’s a welcome break from the pressures of providing for children and the constant struggle to survive. In most cases, it gets easier and easier to come back in. So that’s what he did. Even after his conversion, as I said, and an earnest desire to reform himself, he came back. Many times.
In our society, capitalist society, you’re a commodity, like everything else. No one’s going to give you what you need to live and live well, money, unless they see you as a good “investment,” i.e., think that you’ll provide more value to them than they pay out to you in the form of your wages. That’s how investments work. I’m not going to buy an investment property unless I think I can get more money out of it than what I paid for it. R.M. is not much of a commodity—he’s 47, spent most of his life in prison, has only worked a little at legitimate jobs doing a few handy-man jobs here, some informal barber work there… So no one’s going to “invest” anything in him when there are more attractive commodities out there. In fact, millions and millions of unemployed, all doing their part to keep the price of labor cheap and, for those who really need it, scarce.
If you wonder why I spend a lot of time bashing capitalism in these essays, it’s because I don’t look at it from the standpoint of the S&P 500, which means nothing to most ordinary people, or the production of nonsense like iPhone5s or whatever they are. I look out every day at a sea of wasted human potential, the capitalist system’s “surplus labor,” the “reserve army of the unemployed” that keeps labor cheap, business profitable, and the system rolling—the degraded, trampled-on image of God.