A couple of months ago, I wrote about a decrease in jail revenue due to the decreasing county jail population, a statistic which had been displayed up to the minute on an electronic sign in front of the jail. The sign, including the little digital prisoner in his striped uniform and ball and chain, has been dark for a couple of weeks now, ever since our new county sheriff was sworn in January 1. I’m relieved. I always thought it was kind of voyeuristic, watching the daily toll of lives torn apart, in chaos. It seems to me the souls in that building deserve some privacy. Only God and their consciences know if they are innocent or guilty and what events brought them there. That’s what prisons are – human warehouses. They don’t need my prying mind.
Why do we do that, peer at car accidents, celebrity meltdowns, and the general wreckage of human life? Conventional wisdom says we do it because it makes us feel better about our own lives. I wonder if there isn’t something else at work, too. Don’t we also watch or read the details of sordid stories and wonder what happened in those people’s lives to bring them to that point, wondering what we’d have done under the same circumstances? Would we have folded under their pressures, or would we have had the strength to make better choices? It’s an unfair question. No one can truly know what someone else’s life is really like, how heavy were the burdens they’ve carried. Maybe we can pretend we do and feel relatively better after all about our own choices. Or maybe, we can simply feel better about our burdens. Dear Abby once said if we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back. I’m glad the problems of those behind the walls of our county jail are not out on the pile anymore. Keep the sign dark.
“Nothing is permanent in this wicked world – not even our troubles.” –Charlie Chaplin
“Jail Revenue Down” was our small town newspaper’s front-page headline a couple of months ago. The title caught my eye (what in the world is jail revenue?). Apparently, the state’s payments to the county jail for the inmates they were housing were lower because the state has been processing cases faster and the population was down. Though the article wasn’t clear, I think that must be a good thing? We live about three miles from the jail; I pass it every day going to and from work and on weekends running errands. Our jail has an unusual novelty I’d never seen before: a neon sign that alternates between the time and the current population of the jail. Today it was 443, the highest I’ve seen since we moved here (the lowest was 393, about the time of the news article). You may wonder why I know those numbers, but they are difficult to miss, flashing on a sign I pass several times a day. I think I also look from some idle curiosity. Maybe I shouldn’t pay attention. After all, those are 443 human lives. Actually more than 443 lives: the sign is in front of the visitors’ entrance. Those 443 people have families; all of them were a mother’s infant years ago, a small life unwritten and filled with hope and potential. What went wrong? There must be as many stories as there are inmates. Some may be innocent. All are in trouble. Our lives are a complicated and wholly unique combination of circumstances: the circumstances of our birth, and the distinctive chain of events which followed. Most of us have known both love and pain. Some of us were given great blessings unearned; others have had the deck stacked against them from the beginning. Neither of those situations guarantee the outcome due to the unpredictable human spirit. We are inspired by those who rise from humble or even tragic beginnings, and we are saddened by those who fall astray even as they inherit everything. Meanwhile, we cling to the bit of comfort that we can see the sign from the outside. “There but for the grace of God…” as the saying goes. I had been wanting to write this story for awhile, but never knew where it would take me until I got to this point. I realize what I’ve been missing as I daily note the number on the sign: I have not been thinking about what the number really represents. Tomorrow, I will begin adding a short and silent prayer at that spot on my drive.
“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking…is freedom.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower