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Three books to read in a monsoon—or in the summer sun

Short takes on a new book about lectio divina and icons, Patrick Madrid’s collection of reflections on life lessons, and a 1993 study of public and private prisons.

I have been driven from my deck by endless rain—13 inches in May. The deck is my spot where I read the books I have put off since winter, or longer. Here are three I have read. I would have enjoyed them more on the deck.

• Stephen J. Binz’s Transformed by God’s Word: Discovering the Power of Lectio and Visio Divina is a treat in any weather. This is a book of New Testament readings covering most of the Church Year and many Marian commemorations. Each has a short commentary and a guided contemplation. Lots of people follow a lectio divina but this is accompanied by an icon depicting the scripture selection, accompanied by a commentary on the icon and another guided contemplation. Last, there is prayer as suggested by both of the readings, scripture and icon.

Lectio divina is sacred reading. Visio divina might be called “sacred seeing”. Icons are “written,” not painted; in that sense they are “read”.

The entire process is to relax into God’s word, mulling it over, waiting to see what God might do with it. He then moves the reader on to “actualization,” where you find yourself moved, rather irresistibly, I gather, to do something from the readings, word and image, to become “doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”

By combining commentary on the both written scripture and the “written” icon Binz produces two depictions of the same biblical scene. Transformed is a relatively short book, 20 brief chapters, but honest, you won’t be racing through it.

As mentioned, icons are “written.” But the editors at Ave Maria Press chose to describe the well-known Latvian iconographers, Ruta and Kaspars Poikans, who contributed the images, as having studied at Mirozka Monastery, Pskov, Russia, where they learned “icon painting.” Oh, for shame.

• In a series of personal and theologically related essays Patrick Madrid explores in 50 short essays 50 things he has learned so far in his life. The title, Life Lessons: Fifty Things I Learned in My First Fifty Years, is if nothing else succinct. Madrid hosts the “Patrick Madrid Show” on Immaculate Heart Radio and has 24 books to his credit.

These essays, as I said, are personal, meaning some are cringe-worthy reading. “The Jerk” is an example. He describes his awkward teenage years when afflicted with what can only be described as a faulty sense of humor. Or “Caroline” is another, a friend with cancer he deeply regrets not visiting as she was dying. There are others less squirmy. “The Policeman,” about a cop caught in a public police scandal. It cost him his marriage and his job but did not stop him from attending mass (don’t judge; read the essay). There is also one touching on the death of a social media friend, “Letting Go of Someone I Never Knew.” Saying goodbye (“unfollowing” in the Twitter sense) to a person he knew only electronically is an affecting essay.

The essays are brief. I intended to read maybe one a day. Instead I found myself thumbing from one to the next to the next. Eating olives, you know—one little one right after another. His honest account of what he’s learned is certainly worth knowing.

• In 1993 there were roughly 750,000 convicts in prison, federal, state, and local. That number ballooned in 2018 to 2.2 million imprisoned adults. That is a shocking number and it is due to an array of contributing factors: harsher drug sentencing (for even non-violent cases), racial and class bias, a renewed emphasis on punishment, a lack of rehabilitative or diversion programs as prisons, jails, detention centers (public and private) cut back on costs, and official and public indifference.

I stumbled across a 1993 academic examination of what was then (beginning back with the Reagan/Bush administrations) an infatuation with privatization of public institutions. Anything the government could do, the private sector could do better. Possibly, but should it?

Privatization of prison facilities – contracting prison administration to for-profit companies – was thought to save money. It wasn’t just in the United States. Several other Western nations gave it go, as well. Some have since backed out, but that is not what this book covers.

This book, The History and Politics of Private Prisons: A Comparative Analysis by Martin P. Sellers, appeared in 1993. The comparison is between for-profit and public state/local jails and detention centers, and he really only compares three.

Sellers then was department chair of government and history at Campbell University, North Carolina. As an academic book it is predictably dry, dry reading, festooned with charts, questionnaires, tables, cost analysis, statistical reports, and the like. For all that, as an early introduction to private imprisonment, Sellers did his work. He seems to accept the idea that private prison contractors may bring possible benefits—new approaches, new rehab curriculum—then stymied in public prisons. Privatization was widely regarded as prison reform plus a savings for taxpayers.

Still, constitutional issues questions linger. May the state delegate its police powers to private corporations? The U.S. courts, by and large, have said yes whenever a case has arisen. The policing actions of restraint, force, even deadly force can be delegated by the state to the private sector.

There was also opinion from the President’s Commission of Privatization (1988) leaking through Seller’s entire book, that private contracting “appears to be an effective method for the management and operation of prisons and jails at any level of government.” Just at federal and state levels, U.S. privatization has 128,063 state inmates (a 2016 figure) while federal government houses 34,159 inmates among private contractors (2016 figure). That does not count the 26,000 to 30,000 held for various periods of time by ICE, which employs, again, a private firm. One of the largest U.S. contractors is GEO Group.

Not all is rosy. A county jail health services contractor in Milwaukee left a prisoner in isolation for 14 days where he died of dehydration. He was unruly, officials said, and they turned off the water in his cell after he repeatedly flooded it. His family says he was bipolar, possibly having a psychotic break. Reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month, the man’s family sought and won a $6.75 million wrongful death settlement.

Meanwhile, raise a cheer for the Israeli Supreme Court. In 2009 the court ruled that private prisons in Israel are unconstitutional. The Israeli court confronted many of the same legal issues as raised in the U.S. Said the court, “… when the power to incarcerate is transferred to a private corporation whose purpose is making money, the act of depriving a person of [their] liberty loses much of its legitimacy.”


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About Russell E. Saltzman 10 Articles
Russell E. Saltzman is a former Lutheran pastor who has written for First Things (where for a brief stint he was associate editor), Aleteia, and others. He was the long time editor of Forum Letter, an independent Lutheran publication previously edited by Richard John Neuhaus.

2 Comments

  1. All good books but the most important one out right now is Dr. Taylor Marshall’s book “Infiltration”. A must read for clarity of today’s church and what the lay person can do.

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