Jim was holding his one-year-old son while smoking meth freebase when the oily liquid spilled on the little boy, badly burning him. Technically, it was an accident; the proximate cause was the breakdown in the electrical signals between his besotted brain and his fumbling fingers. Even in that moment, however, he knew that his bad choices were the ultimate reason for this senseless horror. Once in prison, he came to accept that he had loved drugs more than his own life, but how could he live with the knowledge that he was willing to sacrifice his son on the altar of his addiction?

When he attempted to describe that day to me, his anguish made me dizzy. We sat on plastic chairs, our knees touching, and I reached out to hold his large, hard hands as he spoke. I had been volunteering at this medium-security prison for only a few months when he asked for individual prayer. Hunched over, he lifted his eyes to mine, and I could see that the dry institutional air had made his black skin break out with large ashy blotches. He was still waking up from the nightmare of his actions, and he welcomed incarceration. He saw it as the chance to beat the drugs that had nearly destroyed him, and he prayed that his imprisonment would bring some comfort to the victims of his disordered life. But he feared, too, that no punishment would be enough to compensate for what he did to his son. His guilt reached depths that even the law does not dare to plumb.

“They’ll never let me see him again,” he said. “No matter how much time I spend here, it won’t take away his scars. I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself. When will I know that I’ve been punished enough?”

The criminal justice system answered his question at his sentencing. The judge prescribed a specific number of years behind bars and, as a gesture of goodwill, promised to reduce the number if he behaved himself. But as Jim spoke to me, it was clear that a decreed amount of time could do nothing to limit the shame and culpability he felt, just as the prospect of an early release was not the mercy he was seeking. The system was speaking a mathematical language that did not add up to anything relevant to his heart. He wanted a punishment that would go as deep as his guilt, but how could a punishment like that not destroy him? And in the face of that need, what meaning could he find in a sentence of a set number of years? He wanted to know, quite simply, what his punishment was for. Other than confining him, what was the process supposed to do to and for him? It was a desperate need, I could tell. He was willing to serve the time, but he wanted to know how his punishment could ever end.

To that question, nobody in the prison system has a good answer. As a weekly prison-ministry volunteer, I have met many dedicated professionals—chaplains and psychologists, case managers and recreation specialists. The programs they offer, from anger management to addiction recovery, provide important opportunities for the inmates to learn skills that will help them reenter society. Nonetheless, most of the men I talk to treat compulsory education in prison just like they treated it in public schools. They sit through the classes, but only in order to reduce the time they have to sit in their dorms or cells. Besides, prison classes have their own set of problems that make learning difficult. Offenders who do not trust each other can hardly be expected to ask for help from teachers and open up to their classmates. I once asked Jim what he was learning from his addiction class that might help him with his feelings of guilt. “Oh we can’t talk about that none,” he told me. “The teacher says we got to keep it positive, or we might bring religion into it.”

In many states, rehabilitation is on the upswing for the first time since the seventies ushered in a stringent era of getting tough on crime. The many programs and their providers are to be applauded, and given the increasing number of inmates who are mentally ill, prisons need even more resources dedicated to treating the medical conditions of offenders. But it is not the job of social-service providers to take the moral sting out of punishment. Nor are they charged with justifying the punitive conditions under which they meet their clients. It is up to the offenders themselves to determine what it is about their punishment that they really deserve.

Prisons are depressive places, and intentionally so, even though prison psychologists try to cure depression. Psychologists try to diminish what the state inflicts. Wouldn’t it just be easier to equip prisons with happier accommodations? There is some truth in that reforming impulse. I am always struck by the absence of beauty in the prisons I visit. Passing through the first of several security checkpoints is like going back in time in order to enter a black-and-white television show, except that everything is a shade of brown rather than grey. When I first started volunteering for prison ministry, I was told not to wear beige or brown slacks, since in the event of a crisis, I could be mistaken for an inmate. Postmodern thinkers trumpet a homogeneous and univocal ontological worldview, but a prison landscape is what their metaphysics might actually look like. There are no vistas of natural beauty, and no art, religious or otherwise. No object can stand out or take on a dimension of depth, because nothing should impede or distract the views of the correctional officers. Other than the looming guard towers blocking the sky, everything looks flat. The ugliness of modern prisons is a mockery of the Christian hope that punishment can be a means of elevating the soul.

Thanks to animal-welfare experts such as ­Temple Grandin, livestock-handling systems are now designed to complement and soothe the natural ­behavior of cattle. By contrast, American prisons are built to house human beings in ways that are completely unnatural if not downright beastly. If cattle can be slaughtered with minimal stress, surely men and women can be deprived of their freedom in less degrading ways.

Still, there will always be a basic tension between the goals of the social-services professionals and the primary purpose of the penal system. Although we’re often reluctant to say so, punishment is what prisons do, no matter how many rehabilitation programs they run. This paradox—we confine the guilty in dehumanizing spaces, but then devote resources to softening the experience—reflects a deep cultural ambivalence about punishment. Few spectacles offend the moral sense more than the sight of the guilty getting off scot-free. Nonetheless, while it has become common wisdom that even so-called victimless crimes are violent, because they tear at the fabric of society and harm at least the individuals committing them, we are much slower to admit that every penal system, no matter how carefully regulated, meets violence with violence. Prisons do not need to be as violent as they are, but sending someone there is a violent act by any definition—an intentional use of force to coerce men to live where they don’t want to be and under conditions they don’t choose. This results in harm and deprivation, which is precisely why prison is punishment.

Of course, we often justify the collective violence of the penal system by insisting that keeping offenders off the streets cuts down on crime. But we don’t just remove criminals from the scenes of their crimes. That alone would hardly satisfy the demands of justice. We also hope that prosecuting people for crimes will be a warning to others. But there is no way to measure the degree to which specific punishments actually deter crime. While the threat of a slap on the hand might be enough to deter some potential shoplifters, cutting off offenders’ hands might not be enough to deter others. Utilitarian goals of crime prevention and deterrence provide, at best, a very shaky justification for punishment.

Some grant that prisons must punish, but insist that our use of punishment is justified only to motivate offenders to take advantage of opportunities for rehabilitation. It’s an appealing therapeutic approach, but the facts run against it. The punitive conditions of prisons, with a few exceptions reserved for the wealthy and powerful, always exceed the hypothetical minimum needed to allow administrators to use classes and programs as rewards for good behavior. Added to that, if punishment is a means to get offenders to do what is in their own best interest, why keep punishing them when they sign up for classes? And if some prisoners won’t comply, the next logical step would be to increase the punishment until they do. Or, if punishment simply doesn’t work as motivation for certain prisoners, why continue to punish them at all? For both the compliant and the resistant, a strictly rehabilitation rationale for punishment loses its value. As soon as it is viewed as an incentive, punishment becomes irrelevant to the virtuous inmates and wasted on the vicious ones.

Punishment by definition contravenes the will of the one who is punished, which is why many offenders view rehabilitation programs themselves as punitive, since they feel pressured to participate. Indeed, there appears to be a perverse law linking the reform of prisons to the enhancement of punishment, since reform efforts frequently focus on increasing the staff’s control over the inmate population. To prevent inmates from harming each other, their freedom has to be sacrificed to every kind of discipline and surveillance. These quandaries are made worse by the fact that one of the marks of civilized society is the refusal to take pleasure in punishment. We do not want to make a spectacle of punishment, as our forebears did. As a result, prisons are hidden from public view, which makes the work of correctional officers harder to supervise.

Verdicts are the product of a deliberative process, but punishment exceeds what can be accomplished through rational argument and mutual agreement. A judge can lecture a convicted criminal at the time of sentencing, but punishment begins not with a verbal admonishment but when the convict is handed over to the jailer. We might think that punishment should be meted out in exact proportion to the resistance of the offender’s will. That’s often how a parent punishes a child to encourage remorse and reform. But the mystery of human freedom and the requirement of justice itself to treat like cases with a like response render that ideal virtually useless in the criminal justice system. Punishment can never exactly fit a crime, and we can’t tailor punishment to the unique moral and spiritual needs of individual convicts. Given the diversity of human character, punishment always totters on a moral slope so slippery that it is impossible to determine with any precision where it crosses the line from remedial to vitiating.

Every decision in a prison is made for security reasons, which is why offenders are rarely treated as unique individuals with their own needs and aspirations. Even the food, by design, tastes the same from one day to the next. I once tried to illustrate a sermon about the fragility of memory by asking the men if they remembered what they had for lunch. They cried out together, “Yes!” Then I asked them if they remembered what they had for lunch yesterday or the day before that, expecting fewer of them to respond affirmatively. They were amused by my bewildered expression when they once again shouted, “Yes,” and after the laughter died down, one of them explained, “It’s easy to remember. We have the same thing every lunch, seven days a week.” Uniformity makes control easier and governance more efficient. In fact, prisons are strong candidates for being the most bureaucratic places on earth. For men forced to wait years for their freedom, being subjected to petty rules and paperwork is maddening. In my experience, prisoners complain more about being treated with indifference than brutality.

Like all of us, offenders want to be recognized for who they are, but they live in a place where anonymity is the safe bet. Because I am slow to remember names, I was frustrated that almost all of the men who came to our worship services put their identity cards in their pockets when they walked through the door. It took me a while to realize that they wanted me to look into their eyes, not at their tags. They needed someone to remind them that they had faces and not just numbers.

The most common criticism of incarceration is that punishment only makes prisoners worse. Add as well concern that our prison system is now unduly oriented toward locking up African Americans and it’s not surprising many worry that we cannot trust the justice of the current system. We are so unsure of what punishment is for that we have taken to calling prisons correctional facilities, as if prisons are in the business of teaching good manners and proper business protocols.

One of the consequences of the social loss of faith in prisons is the criminalization of punishment; corporal punishment in schools and at home is still the source of much debate, but time-outs have triumphed over the paddle. In fact, family “professionals” now warn us that there is a sharp difference between discipline and punishment. As a safe-environment coordinator for a diocese in Massachusetts put it, discipline is “designed to be a teaching moment for the child. It is not an emotional or angry reaction.” That’s a good distinction for advising day-care workers on how to treat a two-year-old who is throwing food, but many forms of discipline carry some level of force, especially when someone won’t willingly cooperate with the “teaching moment.” Even when reformers try to turn prisons into disciplinary institutions, they remain extremely punitive.

If prisons cannot be trusted to punish offenders, then maybe their goals should be restorative, not punitive. That is the position of those who view crime as both a cause and a symptom of social maladies that harm perpetrators and victims alike. They want to replace punishment with efforts to repair and promote the communal life that crime tears apart. By giving victims a voice and encouraging offenders to take responsibility for their actions, restorative justice can move communities toward the healing and wholeness that the government can’t accomplish with the power of imprisonment.

Restorative justice can be a noble goal, but it does not speak to Jim’s anguish, which could not be assuaged by public apologies or rectified by community service. Nor can this approach take the place of punishment for most criminals. In fact, restorative-justice programs actually increase the power of the state by adding yet more layers to an already crowded and overworked judicial bureaucracy, subjecting those in trouble with the law to extraordinary levels of social control. In any case, punishment, for Jim, was not the cause of his anguish. He accepted society’s retribution as an honest and accurate response to what he had done. The problem for him was that imprisonment seemed not enough. It was too external to the transgression he felt so acutely deep within. His fear was that the wrong he had done would forever define his future.

The Church should be the institution that can show the saving power of punishment, but theologians have spent decades retreating from any positive connection between retribution and salvation. One of the signature moves of liberal ­theology is to juxtapose God’s unstinting beneficence to old-fashioned depictions of God’s vindictive and authoritarian intolerance. God’s wrath supposedly belongs to a primitive age; even righteous anger has no therapeutic value. The penal substitution theory of the atonement states that justice demands the punishment of sin and that Jesus Christ was punished on the cross in our place. This view was once taken for granted. Theologians today cannot write books fast enough criticizing it. The Nonviolent Atonement. Atonement and Violence. Saved from Sacrifice. Instead of Atonement. Transforming Atonement. A Better Atonement. The title of one recent essay says it all: “We Can Work It Out: Heart, Mind, and Action in the Struggle for Atonement.” While there are many criticisms of the penal substitution theory, the main one rejects God’s apparent need to punish transgressions. Couldn’t God just forgive us instead? Begin with the axiom that God is nonviolent, add the premise that all punishment is inherently violent, and you end up with the conclusion that God would never send his only-­begotten Son to the cross, let alone intend that criminals should go to jail.

In Redeeming a Prison Society, Amy Levad reflects a contemporary sensibility that shrinks from assigning positive moral and spiritual values to punishment. She declares, “Prisons inherently contradict the norms and values upheld in liturgical and sacramental ethics.” She suggests that the sacrament of penance leads us “to understand individual wrongdoing not in legalistic terms as a violation of the law (which it sometimes is) but as a violation of relationships.” Incarceration is thus antithetical to the Gospel. “Whereas prisons are based on retribution, Penance prefers forgiveness to punitiveness.” The resulting theology is deeply dualistic. Prisons isolate; reconciliation connects. Punishment divides; the Church unites.

This approach is not good news for Jim. Rendering punishment meaningless leaves people in prison alone with their guilt. The men I work with have gone through every kind of anger, resentment, and despair, but most have come to feel profound gratitude for their punishment. They talk about God intervening in their lives to remove them from bad situations where they could have ended up doing even worse things than what landed them in prison. Many find faith for the first time behind bars. When I preached a sermon calling our prison chapel the freest place on earth—free because those of us gathered there had no hope of hiding our sins and therefore no excuses to resist God’s grace—several men afterward told me that I really got it. Those in prison are on the front line of spiritual warfare, and their victories can be marvelously sweet.

It is to prisons, then, that we should look for the resources to develop a sound account of punishment. There we can participate in the penitential drama that is folded into the dark recesses of incarceration. Jim is not Catholic, and I am not a priest. But only the word confession does justice to what he needed. He anguished over what he had done to his son. He wanted companionship for his journey into contrition. I told him that God had been with him that terrible day he burned his son. “You held onto him so tightly because you loved him,” I said, “not because you wanted to destroy him. Now you have to hang onto God even more firmly.” Jim wanted the cross for himself, but I had to remind him that Jesus had already taken his place.

In prison I’ve learned that Jesus Christ did not die so that we might never experience punishment for our misdeeds. He suffered on the cross so that we can find the meaning of punishment in him. Over the course of many Wednesday evenings, Jim and I began lifting his son up in prayer, asking God to let the boy feel Jim’s fatherly love. We petitioned God to let Jim meet his son one day and hold him again, in tears of sorrow and joy. Christ’s punishment on the cross in our place makes this a real possibility. Unlike incarceration, the cross goes down into the innermost depths of Jim’s guilt, breaking the bonds that he fears will tie him to his sins forever.

“Live your life now so that you become ready to meet him, and even if you don’t see him again in this life, I know he will come running to greet you in the next one, to let you hold him again,” I told him. “Fathers can be prodigal, too, you know.”

Stephen H. Webb reflects on the spiritual value of punishment.