The erasure of sacred space at the Dane County Jail

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a spirited conversation of clergy and formerly incarcerated persons discussing the importance of spiritual care and sacred space in institutions of incarceration. The Dane County Jail is about to undergo long overdue renovations with a price tag of $76 million. It has come to the attention of chaplains and community members that current plans do not include dedicated space for worship or other religious gatherings.

On one level, this erasure of sacred space from the jail could be seen as another example of the departure of religion from public life and a sign of its waning significance in American culture. With fewer people participating in organized religion, why bother spending money on a space dedicated to worship and spiritual reflection? Religion and spirituality are simply a lower priority than other uses—such as mental health, physical fitness, and the like.

But I think there is something more significant at play. One of the themes that emerged from the panel discussion was the uniqueness of sacred space in an institution of incarceration. “Sacred” comes from a Latin word which means “to set apart.” In an institution where every aspect of one’s life is monitored, where one has no privacy, no silence, where surveillance is constant and absolute, having a place apart from that where one can attend to one’s spiritual needs without interruption or intrusion, is space that is at least for a brief time each week, free from the power of the carceral state.

In sacred space, people can sit, pray, worship. They can be still and know God. They can listen to the rhythms of their hearts, the yearnings of their souls, without the distraction of noise from people in the surrounding bunks. In sacred space, they can sense the moving of the Spirit in their lives, and respond accordingly. In sacred space, they can draw strength from others who are seeking the same solace, and receive counsel from supportive chaplains.

Representatives of the Sheriff’s office argue that there simply isn’t enough space, that other needs take precedence—medical beds, mental health, addiction. To separate out spiritual needs from other needs is misguided and unfortunate. In many cultures, spiritual health is deeply connected to mental health and physical health; one can’t heal the body without healing the soul, and if the soul doesn’t receive the attention it needs, neither body or mind can be fully healed.

It was clear from the formerly incarcerated people who spoke on Sunday, and clear too from my many conversations with formerly incarcerated persons, that many interpret their journeys spiritually, that they see the decisions they made that brought them into contact with the criminal justice system, and their experience in prison and jail, in spiritual terms. They see God at work in their lives, or their punishment as connected with their own sins and God’s forgiveness. To deny them space in the Dane County Jail to process their lives spiritually, to connect with others who are sharing similar journeys, and to find the solace provided by a religious tradition, is to rob them of one of the most important resources they need to transform their lives.

It’s unfortunate that the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and our Dane County elected officials do not care enough for the men and women incarcerated here that they are willing to commit resources to meet the spiritual needs of jail residents.

The Capital Times’s coverage of the Sunday event is here.

More background from Isthmus here.

The campaign to accommodate spiritual needs at the Dance County Jail has a facebook page.

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