Most Sundays I spend my evenings inside the medium security prison at MCI Shirley here in Massachusetts, fellowshipping with men whose lives have taken unfortunate turns. I’ve gotten to know some of the men who regularly attend the ministry, heard their testimonies, and have been challenged by some of what I hear. I’m not being casual with the word when I say I genuinely love these men, my brothers in Christ.
I’m not ignorant of the fact that the acts these men committed often involved other people, victims and their families, and that there are some cases where the damage done was irreversible. I’ve wept at times while coming to grips with the grim reality that attends prison ministry. I have answered a call to bring a message of hope and encouragement to a demographic that desperately needs it, and while there are some who resent the work I and other prison volunteers do, I make no excuses on behalf of these men, and I’ve never heard any offered by them.
Today, crooked financier Bernard Madoff takes a step closer to boosting the nation’s prison population for masterminding and carrying off a massive, decades-long fraud scheme that ruined the lives of thousands of innocent investors who trusted the Wall Street baron with their futures.
Bernard Madoff has pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts and the possibility of a 150 year sentence, but because of who Bernard Madoff is, the resources he yet has available, and the “non-violent” nature of his crime, it’s likely that he won’t do hard time, even if he does live out the rest of his life on the wrong side of the razor wire.
I’ve got a big problem with that.
That Madoff didn’t brandish a Roscoe in perpetrating his crime shouldn’t get him off the hook. To the contrary, the book on Madoff’s Ponzi scheme describes his sin as so cunning and calculated that well-meaning folks unwittingly helped him in his deception. They trusted him and he violated that trust to draw more victims into his web. In addition to money, reputations were lost and some took it hard. After losing more than $1 billion of his own money as well as the fortunes of clients that trusted him, investor Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet was so burdened by the weight and consequences of his apparent inadvertent guilt that he decided to take his own life. Retired British soldier William Foxton, upon learning that he’d lost his hard-earned modest fortune to Madoff, also chose to end his own life.
It’s said that all prisons are filled with innocent men, and if you don’t believe it just ask them. My experience has been to the contrary. Most of the men who gather in the chapel during Sunday night’s Most Excellent Way service will tell you bluntly that they are guilty of their crimes. Repentance requires admission of guilt, after all, and forgiveness can only come when there’s genuine contrition. Sometimes it takes getting caught in one’s deeds to bring that kind of brokenness, but even when God forgives absolutely the state still requires that time be served, and prisons like MCI Shirley are filled beyond capacity.
I don’t for a moment believe that Madoff is beyond redemption, but if he lands in Club Fed instead of a less comfortable facility, what kind of message does that send to folks struggling in the shadow of his tony Manhattan townhouse?
Our Declaration of Independence affirms the concept of equality, yet that ideal has never been a reality in America, and if the court treats Bernard Madoff with more deference than a kid who foolishly decided to earn his bread peddling dope under a street light, or who stupidly got in a scrape over a matter of respect, or who concocted a losing scheme to take money under an empty threat, the message will resound with clarity through every struggling neighborhood in the country.
In spite of the tremendous symbolism of President Barack Obama’s presidential victory, in the United States of America there are still too many who are more equal than others.
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