Failure is not a Mistake

Excerpted from the Chaplain's Report,
December 1947

There is something to be said for the proposition that men in this institution are hardened and rigid. One might establish quite a case in defense of the proposition that this is the most difficult parish in the United States. Of all the "commodities" that might be appetizing to the men here, religion can readily be classed at the foot of the list. Thus, for a minister to bring his wares to this market is like a salesman approaching the most impossible patrons in his district. It is like trying to sell swimming suits to Eskimos or the Havard Classics to an illiterate. One is paradoxicaly trying to touch them at the point where they are most unreachable. This is like trying to break a board at the point of its greatest reinforcement. What these men need most is precisely what they are least interested in receiving. That is why they are in such desparate need; it is the vicious circle wherein one builds his strongest defenses and erects his thickest armor about his most vulnerable flank. This is what these men do in their posed indifference and hostility to the spiritual realm symbolized by religion.

If one did not know this secret, this hidden truth, that men are weakest at the point of their most defensive and strongest reaction, he would readily surrender to the obvious resistance and seek less uncooperative markets. Again the paradox arises and is present in the fact that while this is the world's worst parish in terms of the resistance, it is also, and for that very reason, the world's best parish where there is the most intense need and the most room for development. If the problem were merely a matter of gaining overt support for chapel services or even verbalized religious concern, it could be solved by a mere authoritarian passing of a rule that all inmates attend chapel and profess to be Christian or go to solitary and isolation. A few would hold out, but most would follow along for the sake of expediency. The simplicity would be perversity and the consequence would be sham. It is the same wherever men are constrained to cooperative conduct by pressures from outside. It is far more conducive to healthy relations if we permit men to freely manifest there asocial and non-Christian tendencies where there motives can be examined than to constrain them to "proper" conduct and thus bury their motives and invite treachery, conniving and duplicity. All philosophies of treatment by restraint are complicated and rendered faulty by virtue of the tendency to hide the symptoms and impair significant treatment which must always concern itself with the roots more than the superficial symptoms. In our Federal penal institutions, we go to great ends to avoid the use of restraint and force in connection with religion. This is proper. Our error lies in assuming that this is not a proper attitude in respect to conduct in general. We attack our inmates at the point of their asocial symptoms and seek to restrain them and intimidate them to the end that the symptoms will disappear. It is needful that the symptoms remain as long as the heart is perverse and all treatment which concentrates on the conduct but ignores the heart is hypocritical and vain.

The failure of our religious program at this institution is not to be construed as a mistake. It is merely evidence that we have not yet dealt with the hearts and have not been superficial enough to demand an overt behavior out of keeping with the condition of the heart and spirit. This is not an excuse, but an indictment. Only that which comes from the heart can reach the heart and we can look to our own ministry with contrition and pray for a deepening of our own faith. When we start excusing ourselves by the perversions of others we have already begun to fortify our weakest position with over-lay and pretense without eliminating the weakness.