A Retired Michigan Prison Warden’s Recollections
Death as the Wages of Sin
Caleb, like his Biblical namesake, was a true believer when he arrived at the Muskegon Correctional Facility.
As a true believer and pastor of a small Christian fundamentalist church, Caleb, like his Biblical namesake, was intent of helping his congregants reach the promised land. Whereas the Biblical Kaleb was a spy Moses used to assess the chances for a successful invasion of Canaan, our Caleb was a Christian enforcer battling sin…sort of a church master sergeant…intent on maintaining discipline among those in Christ’s army.
Caleb was quiet and appeared thoughtful, silently listening to anyone engaging him, thinking before answering. I liked him.
He was a strict vegetarian (not easy, living in prison) who did not demand special meals like other prisoners, such as the group that started a new religion that involved pizza Saturday nights as part of their communion service (I told them to fuck off).
Caleb asked if he could teach a class in preparing vegetarian meals. I arranged for him to use the Food Service vocational classroom, with the proviso there would be no Christian proselytizing. I didn’t care if he was a Christian, Muslim, or Satanist, giving clergy authority to prisoners always ends in extortion and strong arming. Always.
To my surprise the class was well attended. Prisoner denizens of the MCF weight pit told Caleb a vegetarian couldn’t be a weight lifter; a real weightlifter needed animal protein to build muscle. Caleb started working out in the weight pit to prove them wrong. After a while Caleb was solid as a brick shithouse and weight pit regulars started attending his class.
A couple in Caleb’s congregation had an eight-year-old chronically misbehaving son. Instead of taking the kid to a child psychologist for testing and treatment, the couple asked Caleb to intervene, a decision common to Pentecostal religions. Caleb locked the child in a closet, feeding him gruel, releasing him periodically to attend pastoral counseling that included Caleb beating him with a wood switch. When I read this in Caleb’s pre-sentence investigation report, it reminded me of the switches Catholic nuns used, along with their ever-handy knotted ropes conveniently tied around their waists, to beat us kids in catechism class.
Caleb’s use of corporal punishment has a long Christian history of using punishment and pain strategies to bring the recalcitrant closer to God in what I call sanctimonious punishment. The Roman Catholic Church sanctified the endurance of pain as an outward sign of depth of faith. In the Americas, Anglican ministers invented the Slave Bible, a bible scrubbed of any references to rebellion and escape (such as Moses’s flight from Egypt), but emphasizing submission and obedience and punishment. It was the only bible available to slaves.
More recently, according to the U.S. Interior Department, sanctimonious punishment was used in Native boarding schools (operated by both the Federal government and religious denominations, including Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Quaker churches) to rip Native children from their families and tribes, destroy their Native culture, work them in dead-end agricultural jobs, and physically punish the recalcitrant children. There were 408 federal Indian boarding schools across 37 states that operated between 1819 and 1969. So far, investigators discovered the graves of over 500 hundred children, and say the total could reach into the thousands when the investigation is complete.
During the last counseling session, Caleb became so enraptured with the punishment process he beat the child harder and longer than usual. When time came for the next counseling session, Caleb unlocked the closet and found the kid dead. The coroner said the child’s death was caused by a heart attack exacerbated by the beatings and malnutrition.
Caleb plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter to avoid a murder trial. The county prosecutor, himself a born again Christian, reasoned that Caleb truly believed his treatment of the child would coerce good behavior and save the kid from eternal damnation. In a roundabout way, Caleb was fulfilling the ultimate objective of all Christian religions, which seems to be liberating followers from this finite life to an infinite life serving God.
Caleb, like so many other Christians, believed suffering a consequence of sinning against God and because of the Garden of Eden fall, people are born into a broken world. Suffering, Caleb believed, sanctifies us and tests our faith. The lad needed to be violently shriven.
During extended conversations, Caleb told me he would experience a strong feeling of ecstasy as he beat the child. A closeness to God. A joyful rapture. A frisson. Something, I thought, more akin to a sado-masochistic orgasm; the sexual pleasure some got from physically dominating others. When I mentioned this to Caleb, he shrugged it off saying, “I guess I went too far.”
“Yah think?” I said.
“I’ve learned from this prison experience,” he replied.
“I’m glad,” I said, “prison helped you where your religion failed.”
The pious are the most cruel.