A matter of degree

Over the weekend I was watching a documentary on TV about life in a maximum security prison. Chronicled were the lives of several inmates, most of whom have spent the majority of their adult lives behind bars. The prison sentences are significant — 17 years, 26 years, or even life.

As I viewed the program, two stark truths were astounding: Truth #1: There are rules in prison. If you don't follow those rules, inmates will enforce them. Truth #2: Inmates want one thing — respect. Sure, they'd like freedom, but co-existing with fellow inmates revolves around who respects whom and knowing whom you can trust.

It seems to me that both of those truths comprise the foundation for what civic society also holds as important. Finding oneself behind bars happens simply because you broke society's rules, which also disrespected others. That's evident through serious crimes such as murder, armed robbery, assault, theft, and illegal drug use.

Perhaps it comes down to degree. As a law-abiding citizen, if how much I value keeping the laws and respecting other people supersedes the temptation to do illegal activities, I live freely in society. If I don't value keeping societal laws or respecting folks, I live in prison.

Isn't it ironic that if the lure of those illegal activities consumes me and I end up in prison, I'm still stuck practicing a code of rules and I'm also still stuck respecting other inmates or facing the consequences? There's no getting away from rules. It's a matter of degree: how much do I want which rules and showing which methods of individual respect.

[Nancy Linenkugel is a Sylvania Franciscan sister and chair of the department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University, Cincinnati Ohio.]