Lately, there has been much discussion on these pages about the U.S. prison system, centered around the alarming statistic that a whole percent of our population is currently incarcerated. To put this in perspective, this means that for every 100 people that you know, one of them is probably in prison right this instant. This discussion has very personal implications for me, since I am writing this column from the New Haven Correctional Institution. I wish that I could say that I was just visiting.
Before I go on, I’d like to thank my lawyer for the hard work that he put into my defense. In the past, his sharp legal mind has earned light sentences for Yale students for a wide variety of youthful indiscretions.
But it seems that no amount of zeal and expertise would have been enough to convince a New Haven jury that robbing a convenience store at gunpoint in broad daylight constitutes a “youthful indiscretion,” even if it was spring break.
We did manage to negotiate the charges down from felony armed robbery to misdemeanor larceny, which, given my previously clean record and what the judge called my “nigh-limitless potential,” means that I’ll be released in a month or two. In the meantime, I’ve been pondering the circumstances that brought me to this lamentable state. I wonder if maybe I wouldn’t have held up that convenience store if I’d had prayer in my school.
In his recent column (“In liberal circles, Great Society rhetoric lingers” 4/1), Peter Johnston opined that reducing America’s burgeoning prison population, “requires a strengthening of the institutions that most directly shape character: the family and the church.”
There was a time when I’d scoff at this notion that building up the role of the church would result in fewer people going to jail; I’d cite studies like “Does Religion Really Reduce Crime?” by Paul Heaton at the University of Chicago, which examined data from 3,008 American counties and found “a negligible effect of religion on crime.” But the circumstances of my arrest have led me to reconsider my former secularist views.
I distinctly recall that when I committed my crime, I was so hopped up on godless existentialist philosophy that I wasn’t even sure whether I was a figment of my own imagination. “If life is nothing but a meaningless series of material circumstances linked by a merciless chain of cause and effect,” I thought, “I might as well go rob that Rite-Aid.” Yet even as I stuffed handfuls of $5 bills into the pillowcase that I brought from my dorm room, I felt a profound emptiness in my heart.
Flushed as I was with excitement at the audacity of armed robbery, my soul was still as dry and withered as the packets of beef jerky that I looted from a display rack. I suspect that if the police had not promptly arrived and apprehended me, I would have committed further robberies simply out of despair at the pointlessness of human existence.
I used to decry the Gallup poll numbers that revealed that 53 percent of Americans would definitely not vote for a well-qualified atheist in a presidential election. But now I understand that without the promise of scrutiny by an all-knowing God, we nonbelievers just can’t seem to stick to a moral code. Sure, we bandy about phrases like “social contracts” and “personal ethics,” but deep down inside, we’re all just a moment of uncertainty away from doing something completely unconscionable. Imagine, then, the abuses, the unnecessary wars, the sex scandals that would result from electing an avowed atheist to public office!
By the same token, maybe I wouldn’t have turned into such a rotten character if there had been a strong religious presence in the public schools that I had attended. I’m not talking about a token ceremony in the middle- and high- schools, in which students would mumble some prayer in unison after they finish mumbling the Pledge of Allegiance in unison. No, we need to set a strong example to children while they are young and enthusiastic, convincing them that religion is fun and exciting before they are seduced, as I was, by the wiles of modern liberal humanism.
I urge the government to divert money from wasteful prisoner “rehabilitation” programs into funding for brightly colored religious picture books to disseminate to children in the earliest stages of elementary school. An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure.
In the meantime, I’m keeping my current prison stay in perspective: At least it means that one more dangerous secularist is off the streets.
Michael Zink is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.