In the second installment of a two-part series, Urban Faith Writer Katelin Hansen gives our readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the family and friends of those who are incarcerated. Be sure to check out Part 1 of this compelling story, in case you missed it.
Mental Health in the Prison System
One of the biggest concerns for family members is for the mental health of their loved ones inside. “I feel that the reason my son’s life spiraled like it did was that my nephew was killed right in front of him,” Kim explains. “That was never dealt with. I feel like he had PTSD and then he made a bunch of bad choices. He was a different person.”
PJ remains deeply concerned for her nephew’s mental health. “He’s a cutter, I mean a severe cutter,” PJ says. “It’s nothing for him to get 30-40 stitches for a one of his cuts.”
She worries about him.
“I don’t know if they’re addressing his mental health issues. The first thing is to be prisoner, above everything else,” PJ explains. “And whatever mental health problems you have are compounded by the trauma of being in prison.”
In many ways, Kim’s son has grown up in the system. “Mental health is a piece that really needs to be considered,” she insists. “Until they address that inside, or as part of re-entry, I don’t think we’ll be effective in preventing them from going back.”
Cheryl’s experience is that it is “very tedious and time-consuming and hard on your emotions, your heart,” Cheryl explains. “It just seems like the system just drags.”
She’s been trying to get answers for months now, and has been given no indication of how long the pre-trial phase is going to last.
Inmates do serve time during their pre-trial period, so if they are convicted, they may be able to reduce the total time that they’re on the inside. But, if they’re found not guilty, they’ve lost potentially months of their lives.
“I just wish it didn’t take so long,” Cheryl says. “It just takes a lot out of you, both the person being incarcerated, but also for family and friends. It becomes very hard because you don’t want to see your loved ones there.”
PJ feels like the whole system is set up for failure. “You take people who are poor, and when they work you pay them minimum wage,” she says. “There’s a way to make a whole lot more, but with the risk of being locked up. But a lot of times the desperation of being poor is greater than the fear of being locked up.”
PJ says she was afraid to do anything that would land her behind bars. “I’d hear about the interacting with other people inside and how scary that was,” she says. When asked if that meant prison served as a successful deterrent, she replied “It might be, but only if 1 out of 6 siblings is what we consider success.”
Life After Release
Having a criminal record means losing access to many of the support structures that are necessary to getting back on one’s feet after incarceration. After release, ex-offenders face severe discrimination in finding jobs or applying to schools.
They often cannot qualify for food stamps or public housing. And family members risk losing their benefits if they are found to be housing felons.
PJ notes that “if you make it so hard for them when they come home, maybe they don’t have the fight in them to make it through without going back to what they know.” She receives messages every day from people asking which companies are willing to hire felons.
“Maybe if they were given an opportunity to know what it feels like to have paid their debt and then be free of the judgment, there wouldn’t be such a high recidivism rate,” PJ says.
Kim’s son has been in for 12 years and he’s about to get out. “Were excited about him coming home,” she says. “But, I’m still concerned about his mental health. It’s taken its toll.”
And, she knows it could get harder.
“Now there are all the barriers around being a felon.” Friends have recommended programs and pathways, but there is no central place to even see what is available, or to compare programs’ success rates. “We’re excited about him coming home,” she reiterates, “but is has been a heart breaking experience for our family.”
Church as a Resource
Scripture tells us that we are to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3). Sometimes the church struggles with even this much, but what about the families on the outside as well?
When Molly spent some time in jail a couple years back, her church was there for her. “They gave support, cards, love, books. It affected people at church because no one wants to see their friend in jail,” Molly explains.
As she’s gotten more involved in the life of her church community, she’s become more diligent about completing her required reporting to the authorities. She doesn’t want to get locked up again.
“Besides myself, it affects other people,” Molly says. “If all of the sudden you’re gone for 30 days, there’s a gap to fill in your role at the church. I’m not here by myself.”
As was the case for Molly, churches have tremendous potential to walk alongside both the incarcerated and their families. When churches form meaningful and authentic relationships with their communities, many of these caring partnerships happen naturally, offering spiritual and emotional support during difficult times of forced separation.
More formal ministries, like support groups and resource centers, can also be put into place. For example, there are organizations like Healing Communities, a nationwide, faith-based organization that is “building relationships of healing, redemption and reconciliation in families and communities impacted by crime and mass incarceration.” Then, there are other organizations, like Casa De Paz, that support families specifically affected by immigration detention.
Kim says discovering ministry resources for she and her family has been a learning experience. “I feel like some blanks have been filled in about how incarceration affects the whole family,” she explains.
In the first installment of a two-part series, Urban Faith Writer Katelin Hansen gives our readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the family and friends of those who are incarcerated. Check back soon for Part 2 of this compelling story.
Thanks to ongoing work of justice advocates across the United States, we are increasingly aware of the devastating effects of our prison system on the millions of individuals who have been incarcerated.
Angela Davis notes that “prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” Through a broken system of predatory profiling, mandatory sentencing, and profit mongering, millions of individuals are being “disappeared” from their communities, and from their families.
So what is it like to be on the outside while someone you love is on the inside?
PJ, Molly, Cheryl, and Kim share their stories.
“I grew up with siblings who were always in and out of jail,” PJ remembers. “Our family was constantly interrupted. I’ve never been in prison, but I have five siblings and they have all been in prison. It’s like they were caught in a cycle and they couldn’t get out. They weren’t out for even a year sometimes.”
The first time her older brother went to jail, he was nine.
PJ notes that a system that doesn’t repair what’s broken, just perpetuates the brokenness. “The prison system doesn’t fix anything, it just stalls it,” she notes. “My godbrother went in when his daughter was a baby, and came out when she was 18. So where is that whole relationship? Not only is it him who’s being institutionalized, but there’s her whose growing up without a father.”
By her own admission, Molly went to jail quite a bit when she was younger. “I was addicted and it really affected my kids, because I was not there,” she recalls. When she was inside, Molly’s mother took care of her children. She understands that when you’re locked up, “other people are having to hold up your end.” Each time she had to explain to her mother that she was once again locked up she knew it affected her mother emotionally.
Molly is usually the one that manages the household, which meant when she wasn’t around, others were left to handle things on their own. “It can make people feel abandoned, left behind, feeling somewhat at a lost as a result of my being locked up.”
“On the other hand,” Molly recalls, “my daughter’s father used to go in and out of jail a lot, and I actually felt relieved. He was abusive. When he was locked up I was happy because that meant he was out of my hair for a bit.”
Cheryl has two loved one’s currently in the system, one already sentenced, the other waiting to go through the process. “It’s almost like going through a loss, almost like a death,” she notes. “There’s a grieving process. There is a long adjustment.”
Kim’s youngest son has been locked away for awhile. She shares that “it’s hard even to gather as a family. He was the one who was always joking and laughing.” He has lost his support system, and they have lost him.
“He and his younger sister were real close. It’s been hard for her, not having him around her. We have a grandson that was his little buddy, and now he’s not around. They were babies when he left. Now they’re getting ready to graduate high school and go off to college”
PJ recalls going to visit her siblings in jail as a kid. “I hated how dingy and dark it was,” she says. “I hated talking to them through the glass on the phone. I remember having to be picked up to see them through the window.”
She now has a nephew that’s been inside for three years, even though he only just got sentenced a year ago. She is frustrated that she hasn’t been able to talk to him for a while.
Because he was arrested in another state, PJ and her nephew are nearly 2,000 miles apart from one another. “The prison does have video visits that you can buy,” she says. “But, you have to pay with a credit card, then you have to download software, then at the time assigned you have to log on with that software.”
PJ says the system works as long as you have access to things like credit cards, computers, reliable internet, and a webcam. But, it’s still a better situation than it used to be.
“When he first got there we had to write to him on a post card,” she recalls. “We couldn’t even write a letter. That was their rule. You had to communicate on a post card.”
Kim also struggled to overcome long distances to stay connected with her son during his incarceration. When she was, in fact, able to visit, it could be difficult. “He was very angry in the beginning, so visits were hard,” Kim recalls. “He would get mad and tell us not to visit. It took a long time for him to calm down and accept.”
However, for PJ it’s a no-win situation: “They cut you off and make you feel abandoned on both sides. The people on the outside feel abandoned, and the person doing time feels abandoned. Then you’re supposed to reunify that relationship afterward. But its already been traumatized.”
Visit our site next week for Part 2 of this story.
The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a group of thousands of black churches involved in local and global social justice issues, is coming together for Juneteenth to galvanize faith-based action against the new Jim Crow that Alexander writes about in her book.
“The fact that more than half of the young black men in any large American city are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records) is not—as many argue—just a symptom of poverty or poor choices, but rather evidence of a new racial caste system at work,” Alexander wrote in her book. She elaborated on her ideas about the new Jim Crow and the movement against it in an exclusive interview with UrbanFaith.
Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, said mass incarceration is a moral and civil rights issue that the black faith community cannot ignore.
“If you walked into a black church on a Sunday morning and asked, ‘How many of you have been affected directly or indirectly by this issue?’, you’d see everyone standing from the pulpit to the pews,” Carruthers said.
Inspired by Alexander’s book, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference coordinated an effort to raise awareness about the new Jim Crow during church services on Juneteenth, this Sunday. They designed a bulletin insert for congregations to use, which includes facts about mass incarceration, quotes from Scripture, and a Juneteenth and Father’s Day litany.
“It’s not an event, but the beginning of transformative ministry resources that can help propel a movement,” Carruthers said.
Among those resources is a New Jim Crow study guide the nonprofit wrote for churches and book clubs. The guide examines connections to Scripture and African American history and culture chapter by chapter, and then lists multiple sets of data on mass incarceration. At the end of each chapter, the guide uses the African concept of Sankofa—defining it as “to go back and fetch knowledge from our past in order to move forward with wisdom”—to encourage people of faith to take action.
This week, the nonprofit has joined other groups for several events, including a youth town hall meeting in Chicago with Judge Greg Mathis in Chicago, a rally at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago with Father Michael Pfleger, and a Real Men Cook Father’s Day event at Chicago State University (see website for schedule and details).
Alexander teamed up with the nonprofit when she was looking to connect with churches and a colleague directed her to Carruthers. From there, the group invited her to speak on the new Jim Crow at their annual conference in February and used her book to frame their activism.
“Michelle Alexander helped connect the dots in identifying characteristics of the system, in a compelling argument,” Carruthers said. (See a video clip from Alexander’s presentation below.)
Both the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and Alexander have a vision to see churches not only helping individuals, but also organizing to combat systemic issues. Carruthers said the nonprofit started up in 2003 in response to concerns that the black church “had become less vocal and visible in issues of justice” in the post-Civil Rights Era. Since then, the church network has responded to issues such as Hurricane Katrina, hunger in Africa, and the earthquake in Haiti.
“If a faith community doesn’t speak to what’s wrong in a given society, then who will?” Carruthers said.
For more information on how you and your church can get involved in this campaign, read the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference’s ministry alert and complete the New Jim Crow Campaign interest form.
PROBING A BROKEN SYSTEM: Author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander questions the lopsided number of black men in prison.
Forty years ago today, the United States government declared its legendary “War on Drugs,” and our nation has not been the same since—especially if you happen to be an urban male with dark skin.
The Jim Crow laws may have been officially struck down years ago, but author and scholar Michelle Alexander argues that a new racial caste system has grown in its place: the mass incarceration of minorities, particularly African American men.
It’s not a conclusion she reached lightly. As Alexander discusses in her critically acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, it took years as a racial justice project director for the ACLU for Alexander to see the eerie similarities between the present U.S. criminal justice system and Jim Crow.
Namely, having a criminal or felony record means you face legal discrimination for the rest of your life. Depending on the type of crime, you can lose some of your rights—including the right to vote—and can be barred from housing, employment, financial aid and public benefits (see this report for details). These consequences have come down the hardest on low-income minority communities. As Alexander points out, law enforcement has unfairly targeted those neighborhoods for drug arrests, despite the fact that minorities do not use or sell drugs more than whites.
As a result, more African American men are in prisons, in jails, on probation or on parole today than were enslaved in 1850, 10 years before the Civil War. And an African-American child has less of a chance of being raised by both parents today than in the age of slavery, both according to Alexander’s book.
In an exclusive interview with UrbanFaith, Alexander called for people to create a major social movement against the new Jim Crow spurred by love for the imprisoned. She drew on Martin Luther King Jr.’s book Strength to Love to discuss the kind of love needed for this movement: a love that is, as King wrote, “not to be confused with sentimental outpouring” or “emotional bosh,” but rather a force that loves in spite of flaws or wrongdoings.
As a person of faith, Alexander said she believes every person is a “precious child of God, deserving of our care, compassion and concern, and to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s term, unsentimental love.” Part of our conversation with her is below.
URBAN FAITH: You say in your book that so few people realize that mass incarceration is a racial caste system. Why do you think that is?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: The system of mass incarceration and how it operates much like racial caste system has lived invisibly in our society in large part because prisons themselves are out of sight, out of mind. In the days when there were whites-only signs, people of all races could not help but notice that a caste system was alive and well. Today, people who are sent to prison are shipped off and no longer a part of our consciousness, unless of course they’re a family member or a friend, someone we know well. The communities which are hardest hit are themselves segregated from mainstream society.
If you’re not directly touched by this system of control, it’s very easy to be seduced by the myths we are fed in mainstream media, propagated by shows like “Law and Order” and CNN and MSNBC shows that focus on the most heinous crimes. These media images and narratives reinforce the idea that most people doing time in prison are heinous people who we should be fearful of and have no care, compassion or concern for.
The colorblind rhetoric that has enveloped this system seems quite rational on the surface. The system is officially colorblind and we have been told by politicians, media pundits, even by some scholars, that the reason so many poor folks of color are cycling in and out of the criminal justice system is their own fault, due to their culture and their poor choices. And because it’s due to their individual choices, we need not care about the suffering that they may be experiencing.
Why do you think people should care?
I think the fundamental question posed by this system of mass incarceration is whether we as a nation are willing to see every human being as worthy of our collective care, compassion, and concern. And I believe the fate of poor people of color in this country depends on our willingness to answer that question, ‘Yes.’
Even if their behavior we find objectionable or reprehensible, we will not stop caring. We are capable of the kind of love—what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as unsentimental love—reflected in our policies, practices, our rules of law, our ways of being, structures and institutions. Unsentimental love that keeps on loving, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.
If we continue to look the other way and believe that some people are not worthy of our moral concern, caste-like systems will be a permanent feature of American life. It’s always possible to demonize or criminalize people along racial or ethnic lines to make certain groups of people be viewed in the public eye as bad and wrong. If we allow those kinds of tactics to cut us off from our own capacity for compassion, then we are conceding to a system that is dehumanizing millions.
And we have got to rethink our drug laws, which criminalize and stigmatize people who may well be suffering from drug abuse or addiction. We put them in a cage, brand them as criminals and felons and then subject them to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn and social exclusion. Is that how we would want someone we cared about to be treated? I think the answer is no. It is possible for us to do things differently. In fact, we haven’t always incarcerated such an astonishing percentage of our people.
You say in your book that we need a major social movement in order to truly transform the criminal justice system. From what you’ve seen since you’ve written this book, do you have hope such a movement will start?
I do. I believe that a major movement is possible to end mass incarceration. There are many people who think otherwise. In fact, there were many people who believed in the mid-1950s that Jim Crow segregation in the South would never die, and that civil rights advocates committed to end the Jim Crow system were foolish.
One of the reasons I believe it will take nothing less than a large social movement to end mass incarceration is because, if we were to return to the rates of mass incarceration we had in the 1970s—before the War on Drugs and the ‘get tough’ movement kicked off—we’d have to release 4 out of 5 people in prison today. More than a million people employed by the criminal justice system could lose their jobs. Private prison companies would be forced to watch their profits vanish. This system is now so deeply rooted in our political, social and economic structure that it’s not going to just fade away without a major shift in public consciousness.
But I believe it’s possible. Just as racial justice advocates were able to bring Jim Crow to its knees in a relatively short period of time, it is possible to bring this system to an end as well. Once genuine care and concern are awakened for a population that has been so demonized and stigmatized for so long, the injustice of the legal system that has operated to keep them in their place will become readily apparent to all.
Do you see people having that personal awakening?
Yes, I do. In fact, there are a growing number of African-American churches that are answering the call to engage in movement building work to end mass incarceration. I’m working right now with the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which is a network of progressive black churches across the country that has committed themselves to making ending mass incarceration a number one priority.
My own view is that the faith community has got to play a lead role in this movement, because what it’s going to take to end this system is a real awakening to care, compassion and concern for all of us, opportunities for redemption and pathways home. And people of faith have got to find their voices in this movement. I’m just delighted to see a growing number of people of faith and faith leaders answering the call and the challenge that this moment in history presents.
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