Most people would consider life in prison a horrible fate. Not 73-year-old Walter Unbehaun. He robbed a bank earlier this month because he wanted to be in prison for the rest of his life.

Unbehaun has spent most of his adult life in prison and was released most recently in 2011 after serving a 10-year sentence. After reading the news reports, it sounds like the years behind bars have taken a toll on him, making freedom more difficult than captivity.

Freedom was so uncomfortable that Unbehaun decided he’d rather live out his final years behind bars. Armed robbery was his crime of choice. After his arrest, he told investigators he simply “felt more comfortable in prison than out.”

I couldn’t help but think of the movie The Shawshank Redemption. In that story, long-time prisoner Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, gave a haunting explanation of the paradoxical comfort prison can give its captives:

These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.

Those words deflated me the first time I saw the movie, and that’s exactly how I felt after reading Unbehaun’s story. Both cases serve as a reminder of how easily we grow accustomed to bondage, whether it’s physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual in nature. In time, bondage becomes familiar, a known captor, and freedom looms unknown and scary. Perhaps we choose to stay in a dysfunctional relationship, or stick with a life-draining job, or cling to addictions that are stealing life away from us. Prisons like these give us something we can count on, even if it takes our life in the process.

Our willingness to exchange real life for the certainty of what we know mirrors that of the Israelites as recorded in the book of Exodus. After they had escaped the cruelty of Egypt’s bondage, the uncertainty that they experienced in the desert prompted them to cry out for what they knew. They were willing, like Unbehaun, to return to bondage because at least they knew what to expect there.

It is in these moments that Jesus offers to be the certainty that our hearts need. Whether it’s the courage to end a bad relationship, pursue a new job, or break the cycle of addiction—or live life outside of prison—Jesus is the constant we need to really live in this unpredictable, scary world.


  1. This is common. I’ve met homeless men who know precisely what laws to break so that they land in county lock up for 90 days during the heart of winter. I would like to hear you address the concrete social realities that Unbehaun faced, the role of the church in helping Unbehaun reintegrate, the role of Jesus’ people in confronting the systemic injustice of our own judicial system, and so on. I find that you move quickly from the concrete realities of Unbehaun and the post-Exodus Israelites into abstractions for the purpose of personal application. I wonder if that doesn’t do more harm than good for folks like Mr. Unbehaun.

  2. hey, Mike! Thanks for adding your insights. Obviously, if offering my perspective is harmful, I would prefer to retract it. (Alas, here it is, posted. sigh.) It’s not that I didn’t think about combating recidivism; it’s more that I do not have expertise to speak on it, and this sort of post is just a reflective of-the-moment piece rather than a researched feature article. The sort of article/information/encouragement you mention is needed–I think of publications like Reject Apathy and authors like Shane Claiborne that speak to our part in social justice.

    However, I did do some searching after your prompt! Here in our area, the Joy Care Center is a place people can support (perhaps even volunteer?) to help those recently released to enter back into society and get established. I’m guessing that in every city there are similar programs, ones that likely need support–people could look into that to get involved. In addition, there is a CaPC feature article in the works that will speak to our long-term investment in kids that will combat social ills and how the Church needs to be at the forefront.

  3. Heck, I’m not a criminal and have never been in prison a day in my life- but it seems to me a well run modern prison is far easier than the life I’m living on the outside.

    The key there is well run- most are not, and in many cases, the inmates are ruining the asylum.

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