Pat Nolan knows a few things about prison.
A former Republican leader in the California State Assembly, Nolan was convicted of racketeering for accepting an illegal campaign contribution as part of a FBI sting. In the late 1980s he spent 25 months in federal prison.
Nolan took what he learned about prison from his incarceration and partnered it up with his faith as the vice president of Prison Fellowship, a broad-based evangelical ministry headed by former Nixon aide and Watergate figure Chuck Colson, who like Nolan, turned time in jail into a ministry.
Nolan heads up the Justice Fellowship, which advocates for improved conditions and programming for inmates to improve their chances of success when re-entering society.
Prison Fellowship has partnered with other Christian and prison rights groups across the political spectrum to lobby Attorney General Eric Holder to adopt standards established out of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. Nolan was part of the panel which put together a set of standards to help facilities from local jails up to federal prisons stem the tide of prison rape.
California and Oregon has already voluntarily adopted the standards, but for Nolan it is more about faith and principle that it is politics.
“A lot of it is common sense,” Nolan said, often speaking passionately about the issue during a telephone interview with Everyday Christian. “Simple things like looking at a prisoner when they come into the system and seeing if they’re particularly vulnerable. If they are a small 125-pound handsome young man, you don’t put them in a cell with a 280-pound rapist. Many prison systems literally have no system for handling anything like this, nor do they have the characteristics of what predator is so they can separate them too.
“It should be treated as a crime scene and blocked off with statements from witnesses. When prisoners report a rape, which they’re often reluctant to do, they’re too often told, “Man up!” Either fight or accept it, and that certainly is not the appropriate response. Oftentimes it’s not referred to the district attorney. Just because their already serving time doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be tried for raping another inmate.”
This is difficult material for some Christians to digest, let alone fathom, but Nolan sees a duty on the part of believers to take a key role in addressing these issues.
“No matter how bad the crime is committed, the sentence does not include being raped,” he said. “A human being is entitled to dignity and respect. That is why I think the church has played a central role in calling attention to this. This is an uncomfortable subject. Nobody likes talking about it. But the church can play a key role because these are children of God created in His image.
“Though they have sinned and done something to violate our laws, Jesus died for their sins too. They’re entitled to have their person respected and not being beaten and raped while they’re in the custody of the government.”
Nolan appeared today with other co-signees of the letter sent to Holder at The National Press Club in Washington calling for the adoption of the stricter standards. Among them was Marilyn Shirley, a Texas inmate who was raped by a prison guard 10 years ago. The officer is now in jail himself after being convicted himself.
“The way she has described it he slammed her against the wall and raped her then whispered in her ear, ‘Don’t bother telling anybody about this because who are they going to believe, a common criminal like you or a fine upstanding officer of the law like me.’ She said that picture comes back to her frequently and this is now years later. She can still smell him. She can still feel the pain, no only physically, but emotionally.
“She couldn’t believe it was happening to her. ‘I’m somebody’s mother, I’m a grandmother, why are you doing this to me,’ is what she thought. She’s still paying the price for what this man did to her.”
Nolan said he often faces apathy on this issue, where many times people will shrug their shoulders assuming that inmates are simply paying the price for their crime.
“I really think that is a big part of it,” Nolan said. “I think if people focused on the harm that was done and saw these prisoners and their brothers and sisters they would never tolerate it. I do think there is an attitude of, ‘Well, they committed a crime so they get what they deserve.’
“Of course they wouldn’t feel that way if that was their mother or their brother or sister in prison. Every prisoner is not a Hannibal Lecter or some terrible person that has done horrible things. Many are in for relatively modest crimes.”
Among some of the specific recommendations being made:
- Prisoner treatment: “Sadly in prison once a prisoner is raped, it’s treated as that they’re fair game for everybody to rape them. It’s an odd moral standard. Unfortunately, that’s the reality and there needs to be a way they can report it confidentially and not be subject to the other prisoners.”
- Prison accountability: “We say there should be auditing that should track the prison’s record on this and where they’re falling down they should be held accountable for not doing more to fight prison rape. For those that are doing a good job they should be complemented and be rewarded for it. “
- Supervision: “Officers of the same sex should do the pat downs and body cavity searches and supervise their showers. To many, number one, it would be offensive to have someone of the opposite sex watch them as they shower. But the searches can also end up with the inmates being vulnerable and the officers taking advantage of them when they’re in no position to fight.
We’re getting resistance from some prison administrators because, frankly, they don’t anybody telling them what to do. The fact of the matter is that they have not protected inmates from rape and violence.”
Nolan’s stances are predicated on his own spiritual awakening which took place behind bars.
“I tell people I went to prison believing in God and came out knowing Him,” Nolan related. “He made His presence so real; I could see Him at work not only in my life, but the lives of the other prisoners. I could see their lives being changed by the Gospel and their conversion. I could see difficult situations diffused by living according to Christian principles, nor worldly principles.
“I was really blessed when I came out to have this opportunity that knits together my background as a lawyer, my experience as a leader in the Legislature and also my time in prison. It was so much so that when my wife told her brother about it, he asked if it was a made-up job, but God had been preparing me for this all along. I would be an ingrate (toward God) to just go back to life as usual.”
Along those lines, Nolan has two Bible verses he turns to when needed: Proverbs 3:5-6 (“When I get uptight and worried about how to handle a situation, I have to trust in Him. He’ll make a lot better decision than I will.”), and Psalm 46:10 (“I’ll stop and just be still. God, I’m an open vessel. Fill it with your will and use me.”)