In the United States, the land of the free, we incarcerate more of our citizens per capita than any other country in the world. What may have at some point been intended to maintain safety and security for our citizens has resulted in an abusive system that perpetuates itself for its own sake.

There has been a 500% increase in our prison population over the last 30 years. Though only 5% of the earth’s population lives in the United States, we house over 25% of the world’s prisoners. More than one out of every 100 adults in the country is currently behind bars. As elections are won on ‘tough-on-crime’ platforms, draconian prosecution policies and mandatory minimum sentencing have bloated jails and ruined lives.

Rather than intervene and rehabilitate, the criminal justice system, as it currently functions, serves to further entrench marginalized communities into a cycle of oppression. Inmates most often rejoin society ill prepared to make meaningful changes in their lives. Drug treatment is only available to one out of ten inmates that need it. Approximately 200,000 inmates have serious mental illnesses that receive insufficient treatment in prisons. As budgets tighten, crucial resources for education, counseling, and spiritual guidance disappear. Without meaningful programming to develop necessary skills and strategies while on the inside, old habits will quickly reemerge once prisoners are back on the outside.

Having a criminal record also means losing access to the support structures necessary to getting back on one’s feet after incarceration. After release, ex-offenders often cannot qualify for food stamps or public housing. They face severe discrimination in finding jobs or applying to schools. They can no longer serve on juries and forfeit the right to vote. In reality, it’s not actually a ‘return to society’ at all, and over 75% of prisoners released are re-arrested within five years.

Race, Profit, and Mass Incarceration

The criminal justice system in the United States is severely biased along racial lines, resulting in the disproportionate incarceration of black and brown citizens. In her book ‘The New Jim Crow,’ Michelle Alexander asserts that “by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the US criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control…even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.” Indeed, even though African Americans comprise 13% of drug users in the United States (paralleling population demographics generally), they represent over 40% of those incarcerated on drug offenses.  One in three Black men, and one in six Latino men, are apt to be imprisoned in their lifetime, while only one in seventeen white will ever be. Similarly, Black women are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than white women. Seventy-five percent of them are mothers. Angela Davis notes that “the fastest growing group of prisoners are black women, and Native American prisoners are the largest group per capita.”

These disparities are the result of systematized discrimination at all levels of the criminal justice process. From the school-to-prison pipeline and stop-and-frisk policies, to bias in sentencing and racialized drug legislation, the odds are stacked against citizens of color in the United States. For example, the development of crack cocaine made narcotic use more affordable in low-income communities, including in cities that were already segregated across racial lines due to redlining and white-flight. Along with the emergence of demographic differences in drug choice, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated that possession of 5,000 grams of powdered cocaine carried the same sentence as possession of only 50 grams of crack, a 1:100 disparity. In addition, aggressive and racially slanted immigration laws have led to a six-fold increase in detentions. The majority of these new detainees are Latino, further skewing incarceration demographics along color lines.

Heinously, there is much money to be made from a system such as this. Though we spend almost $50 billion per year on the prison system, some individuals and institution are using the opportunity to get rich. The term ‘Prison Industrial complex’ describes the system in which private corporations and government institutions partner together to create an inextricable alliance resulting in tremendous financial profit. The prison business can be quite lucrative. Private companies make millions through the construction of new prisons, government contracts for prison management, and supplying prisons with furnishings and consumables.

Moreover, inmates are made to work for as little as $0.12 on assembly lines and work crews. The prison companies can then sell the product of their labor at substantial profit. Thus, the prison population is seen as a captive workforce, one that can be minimally paid and that need not receive any employee benefits such as insurance or retirement. There are no union strikes; no paid sick leave, no spouse or dependent benefits, and the employee are always on time. Is it any wonder that our jails stay filled?

Indeed, stipulations are often written into the contracts of prison management companies to require 90%occupancy of the facilities. The two largest for profit prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group, played significant roles in crafting criminal justice legislation in the United States, leading to increased mandatory minimums and incarceration rates. Concurrently, companies cut costs by reducing quality of life and basic care for inmates, leading to overcrowding and inhumane conditions.

Reporter Chris Hedges observes that “poor people, especially those of color, are worth nothing to corporations and private contractors if they are on the street. In jails and prisons, however, they each can generate corporate revenues of $30,000 to $40,000 a year.” Thus, the current system of incarceration and labor exploitation is often seen as a continuation of practices dating back to labor chain gangs and slavery in the United Sates. 

The Church’s Response

Scripture tells us that we are to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3). But Angela Davis describes how we instead intentionally hide society’s unwanted members away from our collective consciousness. She notes that “homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages…Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” This is why Jesus reminds us so sternly to visit prisoners and insists that it is among these that we will find him (Matthew 25:36).

Unfortunately, the Church does not always follow Christ’s example with this regard. Lawrence T. Jablecki asserts that “the for-profit criminal detention industry and the Christian right are joined at the hip by a draconian moral and political perspective that impedes the realization of a genuine system of criminal justice that protects the dignity and rights of every person.” Christian communities and political organizations often perpetuate unjust systems of incarceration in the name of “Christian values” and “biblical morality.”

Others though are taking a stand for prison reform. In an interview for Huffington Post, Rev. Robina Winbush suggests that “the ministry of Jesus the Christ was about challenging unjust systems that held individuals and marginalized communities in bondage.”

Indeed, in early 2014 leaders of Christian Churches Together, a large coalition of church leaders in the United States, declared that “the church in the United States has a moral and ethical imperative to protect human dignity and must address the problem of mass incarceration in our nation.”

Shortly thereafter during Holy Week preparations for Easter, a multidenominational group of Christian leaders released a statement advocating reforms to “repeal policies that unnecessarily criminalize millions of people and place a vastly disproportionate burden on poor and black communities.” They concluded their statement by invoking the symbolism of Easter itself “we, leaders of faith call for a rebirth and resurrection of communities burdened by the harms of injustice oftentimes masquerading under the guise of law and order and criminal justice.

Rev. John Jackson of Trinity United Church in Indiana asserts that “the policies of this failed war on drugs — which in reality, is a war on people who happen to be poor, primarily black and brown — is a stain on the image of this society…. If the resurrection season means anything, it means that people are to be loved and not used. People should be helped and not harassed and that people should be placed above profit.”

Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas, suggests that not only should Christians join the fight for prison reform, they should be leading the way: “For Christians, this system violates the basic rule of compassion and balance that infuses the morality of the faith. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, in particular, bar any role for mercy. This result is utterly inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings and actions, which emphasized mercy in our dealings with one another.”

Scripture tells us that “the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners” (Psalm 69:33). As Christians, we must learn what it means to “let the groans of the prisoners come before you” (Psalm 79:11) and to listen to those whom we are called to minister.

Next, we will explore how Christians might better remember and serve the incarcerated, and learn about a prison program in Ohio that is meeting success, even in the face of challenges.

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