Inmates are Not a Different Species

Hank Mattimore
January 29, 2007
Reproduced with Permission

True story. A sub compact car with a family aboard was rear ended and burst into flames. A man in his late 20's ran to the burning vehicle and at considerable risk to his own life, managed to pull a little boy free. The boys clothes had burned off so the man took off his own shirt, to douse the flames and cover the boy's naked body. He cradled the little guy in his arms until emergency help arrived. As I write this, the boy is in critical condition but, thanks to the heroism of the young man, there is reason to hope he will survive.

The compelling part of this story is that the man, who saved a little boy's life, was recently released from prison on charges of drug dealing and other crimes. He is an unlikely "hero," but a hero nonetheless. Those who seem to take an unseemly delight when a man commits a crime after his release from prison, might take note.

I'd like to think that this act of selfless courage will help him turn his life around. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. I suspect that the tendency of those who knew this particular man prior to his act of heroism would have been to write him off as just another ex-con, a bad character; some might call him a "scumbag" or some other derogatory term the righteous reserve for men who inhabit the cells of our penal institutions.

But, in reality, we don't really know what is inside of another human being do we? His potential for good or evil is hidden from our eyes. So what is it in our nature that makes us act as judge and jury of others? Maybe it's our compulsion to simplify life; to see things as black and white when deep in our souls we know life is full of shades of gray.

Possibly, we become judgmental when we confuse the bad things a person has done with the person herself. Good grief! Don't we all know there is a difference between the dumb things we may have done and who we are? Any teacher worth her salt will distinguish between the misbehaviour of a child and the child herself. A kid isn't "bad" because he screwed up is he? If so, all of us are in trouble because, as far as I know, the number of perfect people in the world is a big zero.

Yet, if there is a group of people in our society who are considered fair game for our judgments, it's those who serve time in our prisons. These are the BAD guys and we seem to feel no hesitation to call them BAD. And, of course, if they are evil then who will hire them after they are released from prison? Who will give them a break and a chance to prove that, while what they did to land them in prison was bad, they are not necessarily bad at all. I have personally volunteered to do literacy tutoring to folks in jail. Sure, I felt some trepidation at first. But, you know what? Most inmates are not monsters. They are people, not that different from you or me.

To paraphrase the speech of Shylock the Jew in the Merchant of Venice, "Hath not a prisoner hands, organs, senses, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases... If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?" Prisoners do not come from Jupiter. They are from among us.

I'm not suggesting we coddle prisoners? People found guilty of crimes deserve to be held accountable for their actions. But, it does not do us credit as fair-minded people to put all who have been guilty of crimes in a neat little package labeled "bad." Anyone with a few years under his belt should know that life is much more complicated than that. The true-life example of the young man who risked his life to save a little kid from a burning vehicle should make us at least pause before we pass judgment. Don't you think?