Inmates are people, too.

I spent part of last Friday afternoon in prison — not being fingerprinted or “scared straight,” but hanging out with Terri Stratton, the first female senior staff chaplain in the 130-year history of North Carolina’s Central Prison.

Central Prison, just outside of downtown Raleigh, is home to about 1,000 inmates, including 300 or so in its hospital/mental health facility and another 150 on the state’s death row.

Baptists Today will feature Stratton in our March 2014 issue and I won’t spill the whole story, but walking through the network of long halls and sliding steel doors helped me realize how dehumanizing prison can be, and how important it is to have chaplains like Stratton who see the inmates not as felons but as residents, not as bad people but as people who made bad choices.

When counseling or setting up religious programs for death row inmates, Stratton says she tries not to remember the specific crimes for which the inmates were convicted. She also celebrates the knowledge that many of the men, in large part because of the programming she and other chaplains offer, have made better choices, and are no longer the same people they were when they came in.

I suspect all of us could benefit from better choices and the spiritual growth that makes us better people than we used to be.

Let’s hope we don’t require time behind bars to make that happen.


  1. In my 12 years as a volunteer Bible teacher at the Lompoc Federal Prison Complex with about 4000 total inmates I never asked an inmate why he was there. If they told me that was OK for I viewed them as good men who made a bad choice/decision. I still communicate with 7 by email, 12 by snail mail, and another 25 people who are former inmates or people who have an interest in improving the justice system.

  2. “…who see the inmates not as felons but as residents, not as bad people but as people who made bad choices.”

    No one argues with the need for chaplains in prisons but to insist that there's no such thing as a bad person defies logic. Jesus made it very clear—for instance, in Matthew 12:35—that there are BAD people. His measuring rod for the degree of their badness was Sodom/Gomorrah in Matthew 10 and 11. The media remind us every day of this fact. There's a bit of evil in everyone; otherwise, no need of a Savior. In most people, there's a degree of good, however slight or large. When the evil predominates, a BAD person results. The drunk in the jail-tank on Sunday morning made a bad choice and hurt himself. If he drove his car while under the influence, he was a BAD person, not a good person making a bad choice…unless he was dumb as a gourd. Under Assad, Christians have fared well enough in Syria. Under the insurrectionists currently, Christians are being violently persecuted, with Sharia Law the aim, meaning annihilation of Christians altogether. So…who is good and who is bad? Or…is it just a matter of good people making bad choices?

  3. Every person — including all those in prison, all those on death row (a personal friend has been there for over 20 years now), — all these people are made in the likeness of God, and by virtue of their humanity, and my own (and Clark's humanity as well) are by their God-given nature GOOD people, who, like all the rest of us, have at one time or another, have behaved badly.
    Has Mr. Clark never behaved sufficiently badly to be thought of as "bad," even for a moment?
    God does not desire that ANY person should go to hell (Calvin's theology notwithstanding), and in God's eyes, the very worst offender in that prison (including my good friend on death row) is valued and loved by God every bit as much as Mr. Clark and Terri and me.
    The only real prayer that any of us can offer is "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner." Perhaps Mr. Clark might want to try that.

  4. The only real prayer that any of us can offer is "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner."

    Definition of sinner: “someone who has done something wrong according to religious or moral law.” The subject of the blog had to do with criminals, people who had done something wrong according to civil law. The only mercy they can obtain derives from the Courts, not from God. Their “only real prayer” would be “Courts/Judge, be merciful to me a criminal—a BAD person,” whether the harm has been done to self or others, e.g., a dope-head or dealer not to mention a murderer. If you read what I wrote carefully, you will see that I covered your points—a bit of bad in all of us, but some good as well, with the end result (good person/bad person) depending upon the predominance of either trait. This is true whether in sin or in civil sin. Your claim that everyone is by nature GOOD is at odds with the Bible's take. Being made in God's image means we can make choices, which define us as good or bad. In any case, it is hard to imagine Hitler as a good guy who made a bad choice that resulted in the horrific deaths of 11 million people.

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