By DAVID GONZALEZ

NY Times - November 13, 2009


David Gonzalez/The New York Times
The Rev. Stephen Chinlund is a longtime advocate for prisoners. And from his vocation to help transform lives, he has concluded: “Prisons are absolutely necessary. Some people need to be held still.”

There is a certain monastic quiet in the painter’s studio where the Rev. Stephen Chinlund sometimes spends hours at a stretch at his easel. Outside, along the streets of the garment district, noisy chaos reigns. But inside, in the soft light, he can easily slip into a trance as he paints.

There is value to this solitary pursuit he has cherished in his retirement. He has learned that lesson not just in his studio, but also in prison. Since the 1960s, he has worked among the incarcerated as an advocate, watchdog and even watchman, all part of what he saw as his vocation to help transform lives. His conclusion? Despite the popular image that prisons are nothing more than schools for crime, they can also be places of profound individual change for the better.

He knows that this may not sit well with some of his friends who otherwise share his liberal beliefs. But having been on both sides of the bars, he is resolute in his convictions.

“Prisons are absolutely necessary,” he said. “Some people need to be held still. There are a lot of people, including members of my beloved liberal community, who are horrified by the idea one human being can have total control over another human being. But I feel wildly passionate about this whole thing, even if I know some people won’t get it and will be mad as hell.”

His involvement with people in prison dates back to the mid 1960s, when as an idealistic, community-minded priest in East Harlem, he trekked upstate to visit the incarcerated sons and husbands of his neighbors. Later, he served as chairman of the New York State Commission of Correction, a watchdog group revived to monitor conditions after the Attica uprising. He ran a center for women in Manhattan, and one for men in upstate New York, too. He was also the executive director of Episcopal Social Services of New York, retiring in 2005 to devote himself to painting, playwriting and prisons.

He is proudest of the Network, a program modeled after therapeutic communities, where people doing time come together for mutual support, encouragement, soul searching and goal setting. Over the decades, the program has served thousands of men and women not only behind bars, but also once they are released.

It is what happens inside, however, that can be life-changing. He has distilled some of those lessons — leavened with insights into his own spiritual life — in “Prison Transformations: The System, the People Inside and Me,” which he published this year. The book, which he hopes to get into the hands of as many people in prison as possible, argues that a prison sentence can actually be the best thing that can happen for some people.

But looking at numbers alone, something positive is often overlooked.

“There are complaints about a 36 percent recidivism rate in New York State,” Father Chinlund said. “That means 64 percent of people who go to prison do not come back. Many of those people have been significantly transformed.”

Yet the kind of changes people in prison experience — whether through Network, literacy courses or college degree programs — is often overtaken by the popular perception that all anyone learns in prison is how to commit more crimes. While people who think of themselves as compassionate may hold that view, it can work against those who finish their sentences and go looking for work.

Father Chinlund prefers to look the person in prison — he dislikes the word convict or prisoner — from a different perspective. Rather than focus on the fact that someone is being sent away as punishment, he focuses on what that time can accomplish as preparation for release.

“The alchemy of transformation,” he wrote, “comes from the crucible of the cell.”

Such language flirts with the mystical, which is no accident. Over the years, he has seen how a prison can be like a monastery. Often, he has talked about “holding someone still,” as a necessary condition for change.

“We live in a frenetically active culture, and most of us would think we might pass out if we had to be quiet and still for a long period,” he said. “It’s unthinkable. But since I was a child, I had the experience that silence is a friend. There is a silence that can be a blessing.”

For all of his years working among the incarcerated, it was not until last week that he had a sobering taste of being behind bars. He had been arrested during a protest and spent 30 hours being processed through the system. Though he reminded officers of his rights to food and drink, he did not flaunt his old government connections.

While at the Tombs, he stood in line to be photographed. Opposite him was a line of officers. Between them, he said, was a steadily moving line of people who had just had their mug shots taken.

“Some of them were desperate, angry people,” he said of the faces that walked past him. “I said to myself, this is what a guy looks like before they get sandpapered by the system and being held still. It just confirmed everything. To see these guys up close and to see how much they really needed to be held still, in a humane way. But also unchanged in my conviction that yes, we need prisons.”