A Million Angry Inmates

During World War II, in a Hungarian concentration camp, Jewish prisoners were forced to work producing fuel for the Nazi war machines. One day the prisoners were given a strange task. They were commanded to move a pile of sand from one end of the compound to the other. The next day, they were ordered to move it back again. Day after day, they hauled the mountain of sand back and forth across the compound. After several weeks of this meaningless drudgery, one old man began sobbing uncontrollably. Another screamed until his captors beat him into silence. A young man threw himself against an electrified fence--there was a blinding flash, followed by the smell of smoldering flesh. It turns out, the commandant of the camp had ordered this monstrous activity as, in his words, "an experiment in mental health" to see what would happen when people are given meaningless work. Well, he found out, all right. The prisoners had survived years of backbreaking toil when they at least saw some purpose in it. But given work with no purpose, dozens went mad or electrocuted themselves against the fence. People need meaningful and creative work in order to be whole. Human beings were made in the image of the God who created the heavens and the earth. When we work, we express God's image in us. So it should disturb us that in the United States, there are laws that actually prohibit one million people from doing productive work: They are the men and women incarcerated in America's prisons. It wasn't always that way. In the early 19th century, about 85 percent of inmates were gainfully employed in prison industries. They used the money to pay for room and board, support their families, and repay their victims. But business and labor leaders protested that this was "unfair competition," and statutes were passed restricting the sale of certain prison-made goods. Today, most prisoners don't contribute in any way to their own keep. It's you and I who shell out $16,000 per prisoner annually to maintain them in idleness. I've seen what it does to a man to lie on a bunk, staring at the ceiling, day in and day out. Apathy and boredom soon turn into anger, and our prisons boil over with violence. When these inmates are released, they're so full of anger, so ill-equipped to earn a living, that the vast majority return to crime. Seventy-four percent are rearrested within four years. The most brilliant behavioral scientist could hardly have designed a madder system than to lock people in cells, give them nothing to do for years, and then turn them loose on society. No wonder crime continues to spiral. In those few prisons that do have work programs, the story is something else entirely. Morale is high; inmates learn valuable skills. And the number of inmates who end up back behind bars is as low as 8 percent. If we want to restore the work ethic in America, here is one place to start. We can put factories behind prison walls. I've seen it done in countries around the world and it works. So I say, put every prison inmate to work--and he can pay for his room and board and help pay back his victim. This is one place we can't afford for people not to work.


Chuck Colson



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