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Rennie: Prisoners, politics and Holy Week

Kevin Rennie

When you see a picture of a politician in prison, it’s usually a shot taken at a distance when the convicted former officeholder wanders into the compound’s fenced yard for the first time. The photo runs in the local press in the areas the guy has betrayed and then the miserable blighter disappears from view for the rest of his sentence. Just like the rest of the inmates.

Elected officials and other shapers of public policy talk a lot about crime and punishment, but they do not spend much time in prisons. Politicians will do quick hits reading to children in classrooms, honoring sports teams, dancing with the elderly at senior events, and schmoozing with campaign contributors. They do not know much about life in the prisons that house millions of Americans on any given day.

Spare a moment to salute U.S. Sen. Tim Scott. The South Carolina Republican’s Twitter feed on March 14 noted that he was spending the day at two South Carolina prisons under the auspices of Proverbs 22:6, a nonprofit that helps reconcile inmates and their children, and also assists the children of the incarcerated while they cope with life without a parent at hand.

Scott wrote on his official blog, “As someone who grew up without a dad, my visit with the children and their fathers was incredibly moving, especially the moment when the dads read letters they wrote to their children, asking for forgiveness. I served the families their meals and spoke with them about the importance of reconciliation and strengthening father-child bonds. This experience was truly an example of hope and forgiveness.”

Linda Walsh, vice president of operations for Proverbs 22:6, said that Scott sought out the organization and offered to help. The best way, they decided, was to send him into prisons with the inmates’ children. He spent the day at medium security Kershaw and maximum security Lee correctional institutions.

Scott had no political need to do this. He won his first full term last fall by a wide margin. This was no campaign stop. He knew that two guards had been stabbed in a riot at Lee a week before the event with the children and their incarcerated fathers. Scott ate, talked, and prayed with about 100 inmates that day.

The most important week in Christendom began with Palm Sunday. It was a busy week for Jesus. It began with palms strewn in his path as he returned to Jerusalem, a last supper with his disciples, arrest, crucifixion and, as he foretold, resurrection. The essentials of Christianity flow from that week. It is a week of reflection, sorrow, and joy for the faithful.

Mahalia Jackson, the 20th century gospel legend, sang “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song.” That is harder to do than it sounds, especially in politics. Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor goes on sabbatical whenever a campaign is underway, and we live in an age of constant campaigning.

Most inmates are not beyond redemption. Jesus spent a night in jail, brothers and sisters. Turning our backs on those who stumble and their children is not why he let those Roman soldiers nail him to the cross and hoist it into the air on Good Friday.

Only campaign consultants and the most devoted camp followers hold up American politicians as practitioners of behavior to be imitated in our lives. We hold many politicians in low regard because they are too often isolated from life as the rest of us live it. This is the week, however, to take a few steps along the path Scott walked that Saturday in prison and extend a hand.

Kevin Rennie, a contributor to, is a lawyer and former state legislator in Connecticut.