Former Illinois Governor George Ryan visited his wife the other night. His visit was supervised because Mr. Ryan is a convicted felon serving out the last parts of a federal sentence in an Indiana facility. According to the news, he wasn’t allowed to see his children or grandchildren during the hospital visit, and he spent a few minutes more than two hours at the side of Mrs. Ryan who suffers in grave condition.
I’m glad he was allowed to see his wife. I listened to several reports this week about his request. I heard a report the week or so ago when a judge denied his plea for early release when his wife’s condition worsened. I wasn’t in support of him being released altogether, but I did want him to see and visit with his wife.
I’m no lawyer, at least not in my waking hours, but part of me wanted two things: 1) to let the justice system do its thing, and since it did its thing and found him guilty, why wouldn’t the system work its way to either release him on appeal or leave him in prison; and 2) to let him develop some reasonable schedule to visit his wife. Here are the reasons for my second desire:
- Mr. Ryan’s situation can be a template for how our country treats prisoners. His case is about him but it can be about much more than him since men and women suffer and grieve behind bars and brickyards in faraway places when spouses, siblings, and loved ones die without them having seen their faces, their eyes, without them having held or smiled at them. The same gesture given toward Mr. Ryan should be granted to other prisoners and inmates regardless of their noteriety.
- Our country should treat criminals like criminals, but even criminals are human. Convicts should serve their sentences, particularly if and when those sentences are fair. Sure. I know I’m assuming a lot of credit to our justice system in using that language. Really, everybody in prison is not a criminal. Governor Ryan’s work on the moratorium testifies to that and you can read about that in Ryan’s speech here or in a Northwestern paper here. Nonetheless, isn’t it humane to encourage families to stay together during the worst times in those families’ lives? Isn’t it right to see a man visit his wife while she lay dying, particularly during a national time when couples divorce for hundreds of reasons all the time? Isn’t there something commendable to a people when they want to visit and spend time with a dying spouse?
- Legal people and political people are like most people down at the bottom. What I mean is that all those folks–who are saying no to Mr. Ryan and to the countless other inmates asking for some measure of mercy–are, at their core, the same people who would want mercy and grace and compassion extended to them if they were in similar circumstances. That’s a sobering question, isn’t it? How would I like to be treated if I was convicted and my wife was dying? Would I or a judge or a prosecutor honestly answer, “I would want the power-keeper, the decision-maker to leave me jailed and not grant me visitation”?
- This hits at a sweet place between justice and justice seasoned with mercy. I think our (criminal) justice system can use a carefully measured cup of mercy, perhaps a packed pot of grace. There is something deeply human about seeing a wrong and administering mercy as one administers law. That’s the biblical definition of judgment that rises from my faith tradition. Jesus Christ just doesn’t offer justice without mercy. There is no such thing in the Christian realm, if you will. Whenever there’s judgment, there is infused with it, sprinkled over and cooked in it, mercy. Mercy is always undeserved and as my pastor, Peter Hong says, it is always offered by an unobligated Giver.