In the Story of Jonah, a Lesson About Solitary Confinement
Some extremely resilient prisoners can survive even long-term solitary confinement with their minds and souls whole, almost unscathed. But for many, perhaps most, isolation—and the featureless, purposeless life that accompanies it—is deeply damaging. Yet today, we impose this state, this harm, on tens of thousands of prisoners. The Michigan prison system has over a thousand prisoners in long-termsegregation. In our national experiment of mass incarceration, we are not only imprisoning more people than any nation ever has before—over 20 percent of the world’s current prisoners—we are housing more of them in segregation, for longer periods of time than has ever been attempted. We should be unsurprised if few or none experience Jonah’s positive response.
Let’s move back to Jonah for a deeper look: Jonah learned something in the whale’s belly, but even Jonah’s new-found clarity was far from perfect. He learned obedience but not understanding. Later in the story we find that Jonah is deeply aggrieved, even angry with God. Why? Because when the Ninevites so speedily repented, God relented and went back on the prior promise to ruin the city. Jonah heads outside the city to sit alone—again, solitary if not confined—and stew over this felt grievance. He complains that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil,” throwing those words at God as an accusation, not, as we pray today, as words of hope or entreaty or praise. Jonah is deeply skeptical of mercy and believes only in harsh justice. At the same time, he is psychologically in a very similar place as the prisoner quoted above, enraged and desperate over the withering of the gourd on which he was relying for shade.
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