Praying by the Prisons

Praying by the Prisons

By Randy Klassen

Every so often, the Lord’s Prayer erupts as a public issue, as it did recently in a Saskatchewan community. Should it be recited in a public school? Personally, I have more than enough challenges keeping it in my own home, or my own heart. Do those of us who serve “in the name of Christ” (those of us who work or volunteer for MCC have that as our guiding star) let this prayer speak into, and even challenge, our own daily practices?

RPC from across the River

Regional Psychiatric Centre (a prison) in Saskatoon.

A few months ago, I went on an early morning walk in my neighbourhood, on the north side of Saskatoon. Walking along our beautiful riverside parkway in the starry predawn light, I paused to pray the Lord’s Prayer. But as I began, I was suddenly struck by something that had remained invisible for many years: I was standing (and about to pray) directly across the river from the Regional Psychiatric Centre, a federal prison which is also a mental health care facility. A second thought followed quickly: just down the road, on my side of the river, was the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, a provincial prison. Two prisons, barely 4 km apart—and my home was located almost exactly in between the two. How was it that I could live here for over a decade, and never really stop to acknowledge their existence, let alone how these two neighbouring institutions might shape my praying, and my living? What would it mean for me to pray the Lord’s Prayer, living between two prisons?

I’m only now starting to get to know these places, in terms of what they mean to the people incarcerated there and the staff who work with them. Here are a few facts that have emerged, as I try to gain a bit of context about these prisons. RPC is one of four federal institutions equipped as a mental health hospital (a fifth, Kingston’s Regional Treatment Centre, was closed in September 2013). Saskatoon’s is the nation’s largest, with a capacity for 204 patients. I know there are many caring and competent staff there, because I’ve met some of them; but it is still part of the penitentiary system, and there is an undercurrent of desperation there. The controversial and psychologically damaging practice of solitary confinement (aka “administrative segregation”; see also here) is used regularly. RPC has the tragic distinction of being Canada’s prison with the highest number of deaths (consistently about five a year, for at least the last eight years).

And just a few kilometres down the road, the provincial SCC struggles with other issues: serious overcrowding (often close to 500 inmates in a facility built for 320), and unrest stemming from a recent change in food providers. One quarter of the inmates are in remand—i.e. awaiting trial or sentencing. And what is possibly the most troubling of all: about 80% of male inmates are Indigenous (as are 90% of female inmates at the women’s prison in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan). Compare that to 15% Indigenous in our provincial population as a whole. How am I to pray, in the light of such massive systemic realities that target and take out one element of our population like that? Or should I grieve this first, before I can pray?

I start to mouth the words, “Our Father…”. And I stumble on the word “our.” I am reminded, first of all, that there are many people of faith who are incarcerated. Indeed, many within these prison walls who profess a vital faith in Jesus. They are clearly part of my faith family, and I have lived for years without thinking about them, without including them in the orbit of my relationships and my concern. Is that not a call for me to repent?

And for all inmates, of any faith or tradition (or none), when I pray along with Jesus to “Our” heavenly parent I am invited by him to see all people as a part of the human family. I can’t ignore those who remain invisible to the rest of society; I can’t live in a way that lets them be treated as less than human. That first word—“our”—challenges me to reimagine the boundaries of my circles of concern, and ultimately, changes the way I must answer the question, “who is my neighbour?”.



Randy Klassen

—Randy Klassen is national Restorative Justice coordinator for MCC Canada. He is based in Saskatoon.