Easter Sunrise and the Risen Inmate

Easter Sunrise and the Risen Inmate

Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain, and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds, and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.

Their destination? “Chow call” in the prison refectory or “Meds up!” to the cart the nurse brings on the unit for those requiring morning medication. The stretch of the arms relieves some of the tension from the cell’s hard cot, the eyes crusted literally and figuratively by biology and monotony, the floor’s terrain cold on even the warmest day when one’s address is prison. We do not know how many millions go to church on Easter–but we know how many awaken in state and federal prisons: an excruciating 2.1 million men and women arise at Easter’s sunrise to another day when they seem oblivious to anyone on the other side of the prison walls. Another several million arise in county jails, many not physically far from home but incarnations of “out of sight, out of mind” even to those who are descendants of those to whom Jesus spoke just before his arrest and incarceration “I was in prison, and you visited me.”

Yes, millions have arisen with a purpose: count down the days, occupy the mind, anticipate a visit, and perhaps even attend chapel — purpose is a precious commodity for them. They are inmates, prisoners, convicts peopling America’s jails and prisons in record numbers — over two million in state and federal prison alone — and they arise every morning about the time the Easter Sunrise service crowd shakes the cobwebs from their consciousness to face their annual celebration.

The Easter lens well fits any view of incarceration. After all, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he was an inmate. We celebrate the truth that God raised his only begotten son from the grave — we overlook the fact that the body which breathed its last before burial belonged to a prisoner. He hung between two thieve or malefactors, but “was numbered” with them as well.

Shame and Stigma of Incarceration

Incarceration in America carries more than the punishment of “doing time.” Shame and stigmatization plague an inmate during incarceration and after release. Those twin maladies spread like a virus to relatives left behind, children separated from fathers and mothers, parents grieving for their children, grandparents serving as caretakers for a generation forty, fifty, and sixty years their junior while fathers stretch their arm in the cell and mothers wipe their eyes on the block. Shame and stigma, contagious and infectious as they manifest in symptoms of silence, rendering the affected loved one incapable of sharing the true hurt with anyone at the Sunrise service in celebration of the Risen Inmate!

It is Easter sunrise…. God listens for the praise of God’s people from the cathedrals and storefronts, the megachurch and mass choirs, parish priests and local pastors, pulpit and pew. But God also listens for the prayers of the prisoner, wrestling with past demons, present conditions, and future uncertainty, all with some hope of the transformation promised by the Risen Inmate who makes all things new. Millions arose this Easter morning to attend a sunrise service. Millions more arose to attend to the business of doing time.

An important connection exists between these two populations — this dual set of early risers on Easter morning. Many of them count people in the other crowd as kin — many who run with one crowd used to sit with the other. Many who heard the sound of the choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or “Praise is What I Do,” this morning once heard “Chow Up,” or the slow grind of motors turning to open a series of cell doors. The cymbal was the clanging of cages, the tambourine the rattling of chains. And some who this morning donned uniform orange, blue or tan jumpsuits once sported matching white or black robes on a morning such as this.

Preaching seldom reaches the pain felt by the incarcerated and their families. The separation traumatizes, the anger and disappointment of those left behind papered over by Sunday School memories of lessons on forgiveness. Many incarcerated parents long to see their children; some allow shame to hold their children at bay. Many who do seek the comfort of the Risen Inmate to dry their tears and encourage their hearts find disappointment in the prison chapel service when the local church sends well-meaning but poorly trained volunteers to preach sermons that the church’s pastor would never allow on a Sunday morning, especially an Easter Sunrise service.

Seldom do they hear that the Risen Inmate ministered to another convict before dying by telling him that he would be in paradise with him. They rarely hear that the Risen Inmate suffered brutally at the hands of the corrections officers, and was raised with evidence in his hands of eighth amendment violations of cruel and unusual punishment. They do not hear about the Risen Inmate’s long march up the Via Dolorosa to “endure the cross, despising the shame” as an encouragement for them to receive strength from knowing that “Jesus knows all about our struggles…” They hear an Easter message that rehearses the resurrection as saving act, but seldom as the sustaining act which brings “a living hope.”

Gospel of the Risen Inmate

The late Rev. Lonnie McLeod, who completed his first seminary degree in the New York Theological Seminary Sing Sing program said, “In all my time incarcerated, I really only heard one sermon: you messed up, you got caught, get saved …” But not only does salvation come by preaching, but also “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the “preaching of the Risen Inmate. After his release, McLeod’s preaching both in and out of prisons and jails acknowledged the pain caused by incarceration. At his passing in 2009, he was working on a Christmas sermon that dealt with the pain of incarceration. I asked him how he could make the connection between the manger and the penitentiary, and the good Dr. boldy remarked: “Trulear, this is Christmas. Everybody wants to talk about the first night of Jesus’ life. But no one wants to talk about the last night. And without the events of the last night, the first night loses its meaning! His incarceration, execution, and vindication make his birth worth celebrating!

This does not mean that prison preaching overlooks the responsibility of prisoners to own their sins. Accountability, indeed, signals a recognition of the humanity The Risen Inmate was executed to restore. The “Adam, where art thou” question lives in the Risen Inmate’s heart, for it is precisely for the sinner that he has come. He has come for the one who uses “wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd” the same way Adam used “wrong crowd” to describe “the woman that You gave me.” He came for the violent defender of a friend’s honor, and will transform and use him even as he did Moses. He came for the popular musician who conspired to put out a hit on another man so he could have his wife, all while singing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I see what I want.” He counted the transgressions of a contracted hit man, accessory to murder as his own- and that same man later wrote that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” The Risen Inmate sees their humanity, and for precisely that reason calls the unrighteous, the violent offender to become a deliverer of his people, the lamp of Israel, and an apostle to the Gentiles.

Not only does the Risen Inmate have a word for those persons arising in America’s jails and prisons on Easter, the Risen Inmate seeks to be seen and heard of the families left behind. Families struggle to hear a word for them in the pain of separation. They sit on the Good Friday side of the sentencing of the Risen Inmate, and don’t always see the potential for a reunion in the garden on Easter Morning. “Touch me not” stares from signs in the visitation room. It wells up in the heads on visitors subjected to searches by the corrections officers before and after time with an inmate. It is not a phrase pointing to ascension, but a descent into deprivation, motivated by security and draped in dehumanization. They want a word that addresses the morning they came to visit with new prison clothes, like the women who cam that first Easter with new grave clothes for the Risen Inmate. But when these families are told “He is not here,” it does not point to the surprise turned joy of a resurrection, but disillusionment turned panic in the discovery of a transfer to another facility, or a confinement to solitary. Does the preacher, in the name of the Risen Inmate, have a word for them?

Reimagining Our Prison Ministry

My colleague Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert once asked me to post a sermon on his website The Preaching Project, with the subject being preaching to families of the incarcerated. The message, titled “Preacher, We Are Dying in Here,” makes the case that preaching to the families of the incarcerated is something we already do! They people our pews, tithe their treasure, sing their songs, pray their prayers every Sunday, but suffer in silence. The church may have a prison ministry, but it often does not touch them, or their incarcerated family member. Prison ministry is institution focused, unlike ministry to the sick. If we replaced ministry to and visitation of the sick with the prison model, we would stop visiting individuals and families connected with the church, and just train three volunteers to give a service and a sermon once a month at the local hospital. The Risen Inmate declared that the church “shall be witnesses unto me, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” For most, the jail of prison is the uttermost part of the earth; for the family of the incarcerated, it is Jerusalem.

Preaching often overlooks the scars of the formerly incarcerated, wounded by warehousing, roughed up in reentry. They looked forward to their release date as a time to step into the Promised Land, only to discover a wilderness of collateral sanctions limiting their ability to work, find housing, access education and exercise their franchise. The wilderness extends to congregations that either openly reject them, or buy into the world’s stigmatization process rendering them silent. Theirs is a tacit fellowship of frustration shepherded by shame, silence, and stigma. And the ones who come home to this stony reality find a wilderness where they had expected grapes in bunches for two men to carry.

The newspapers and other media champion the need for jobs for ex-offenders. Employment woes dot the pages of those outlets that give the formerly incarcerated coverage at all. Poor training and education wed the stigma and shame of incarceration in a double ring ceremony that morphs from ties that bind into chains that restrict. A word from the Risen Inmate can minister Easter hope beyond incarceration, and encourage the jobless soul on the other side of imprisonment. The Resurrection says that there is life beyond the dank jail, the taunts of guards and fellow inmates, the pain of separation from loved ones. “I have scars,” Jesus declares, “but I am useful, triumphant, compassionate and giving!” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Fear not.” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Feed my sheep.” The post-release Risen Inmate declares “All power has been given unto me in heaven and in earth.”

And he promises his presence “even to the end of the earth.” There is a word for the ex-offender! A promise of a transformative permanent presence that knows how to look at a former accomplice who turned scared on him to avoid arrest, and tell him to feed his lambs. The Risen Inmate knows something about change, and trusting the formerly untrustworthy. He anticipated the change when he told Simon Johnson that he was a rock. So too does he call the formerly incarcerated by names that spell hope and promise, like the term “returning citizens.” But most of all he calls them human, beloved, and even “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that, the conspirator who put out a hit on Uriah the Hittite knew right well.

And Remembering the Victims

Is there a word from the Risen Inmate for those who have been victims of crime? What is a bold Easter message for families of victims, by walking toughs of town watch, by drive-by or beef, by violence domestic or street? Does God hear their pain on this Easter sunrise, and what evidence is there in the text expounded to let them know that the Healing God knows. The horrific screams heard on a Florida 911 tape may echo those of the sobs of a mother witnessing the unjust execution of her Son by alleged protectors of the common good. Is there no word for her?

“Woman, behold thy son, Son behold thy mother,” comes from the lips of the Preaching Inmate in a message that speaks hope and application in a moment of deep grief. When the Inmate’s visitors go home, they share space and possessions in a family reconfigured to provide care for her misery. The women received a word — but that word became flesh in the ministry of caregiving John supplied surrounding her, the victim of a horrific crime.

The Risen Inmate demonstrates in three days the woman’s vindication by virtue of the Resurrection. In the background, an Easter choir of formerly enslaved Africans, the old Jim Crow, sings: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.”

Grabbing Resurrection Hope

Easter brims with the fullness of incarceration and its implications. It celebrates the vindication of the life of a man who did the hardest of time in the shortest of time. It recognizes that the One whose life we celebrate understood the pain of incarceration. Easter brings to judgment our fear of the inmate, our stigmatization of the prisoner, our shunning of those who return for a second chance-or a third chance, or a fourth chance…Simon Johnson elicited a response from the man destined for incarceration of seven times seventy.

Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.

Early on the first Easter morning, one was risen for all of them.

This essay originally appeared at The Living Pulpit. It is reposted here by permission.

Criminal injustice: Wounds from incarceration that never heal

Criminal injustice: Wounds from incarceration that never heal

Video Courtesy of #VICEonHBO


Mass incarceration damages individuals and communities in ways that scholars are just starting to explore.

Research that we’ve published with our colleague Mary Laske Bell shows that African American men who are former inmates are irrevocably harmed by time they spent behind bars.

This finding is troubling because incarceration has increased over the last four decades due to mandatory minimums and the war on drugs. Specifically, there has been a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates over the last 40 years. Despite decreasing crime rates, the United States locks up more people than any other nation. Although home to only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

Furthermore, our judicial system is inefficient. Men and women who have not been convicted of a crime, rot in unsafe, overcrowded and understaffed jails waiting for their day in court. This is especially true in large urban areas. For example, inmates in Chicago’s jails in 2015 served the equivalent of 218 years more time waiting for trial than the sentences they would ultimately be given. Housing the inmates for this extra time cost taxpayers $11 million.

The money may be the least of it. Consider the case of Kalief Browder, who was 16 years old when arrested and who spent three years in Rikers Island – including two in solitary confinement – before his case was dismissed. The trauma of those years alone behind bars lingered. At 22, Browder committed suicide.

Inmate at San Quentin. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Racial bias and disparities

It gets worse: Lady Justice is far from colorblind.

Michelle Alexander memorably labeled mass incarceration “The New Jim Crow” in her landmark book of the same name.

African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million persons incarcerated and are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. One in three African American men will experience prison; white men’s risk is just 6 percent. Hispanic men are almost three times as likely to be imprisoned as non-Hispanic white men. The poor are also disproportionately represented behind bars.

Collateral damage and scarring effects

The wives, girlfriends and children of African American men who go to jail or prison suffer collateral damage. Studies show that the children of inmates do less well in school and exhibit behavioral problems. In addition, women partnered with inmates suffer from depression and economic hardship.

One might assume that being released from jail or prison would represent an opportunity to make good on commitments to be a better person and return to normal life. If incarceration actually rehabilitated inmates, then that assumption would make sense. But alas, it does not, despite what many people believe.

Evidence instead suggests that being locked away scars, stigmatizes and damages inmates. A history of incarceration has been linked to vulnerability to disease, greater likelihood of cigarette smoking and even premature death.

The psyche of the formerly incarcerated

Our new study looked at how having a family member locked up related to psychological distress (a measure of mental health) among African American men, some of whom have done time. There is not a lot of data from respondents about their history of incarceration. The assumption is that no one wants to disclose that they were locked up. And most scholarly attention focuses on collateral damage, neglecting the experiences of the formerly incarcerated.

Using existing survey data from the National Survey of American Life, we invoked the stress process model to predict psychological distress. We asked if familial incarceration was a stressor that went above and beyond the typical stress people experience. We controlled for social determinants that affect mental health, including age, education, marital status, employment and childhood health. We focused on variables that helped determine the character of familial incarceration including chronic stress, family emotional support and mastery.

Going into the study, we expected that all African American men would be distressed by the imprisonment of an immediate family member. We also expected that men who had been locked up would experience even higher levels of psychological distress because they would empathize with their family member who was currently behind bars.

We were right on one count. Men who had never been incarcerated did experience high levels of distress when a family member was locked up.

But what we found among formerly incarcerated African American men was totally unexpected. When their immediate family members were in jail or prison, formerly incarcerated black men reported low levels of psychological distress. How low? Lower than never incarcerated black men without relatives in jail or prison. And – even more surprisingly – lower than formerly incarcerated men without imprisoned relatives. How could this be possible?

After re-checking the analyses for errors and finding none, we speculated that formerly incarcerated African American men may feel no empathy for their immediate family members who were currently in jail or prison.

Empathetic inurement

Lack of empathy may be a valuable survival strategy in jail or prison, but our findings imply that this “empathetic inurement” follows these men back into the community.

We think that formerly incarcerated African American men return home to families and communities that desperately need them changed in a terrible way. They may be tone-deaf when it comes to recognizing the suffering of their currently incarcerated family members. Even more, they may be unable to act as model citizens or good husbands or loving fathers.

How incarceration injures humanity

Remember that we aim to punish offenders such that they better respect the rights of others and follow the norms associated with responsible citizenship. Cesare Beccaria, the father of criminology, taught us that the purpose of punishment was to prevent future crime.

But do we treat former inmates as full members of society? In 34 states, people who are on parole or probation cannot vote. In 12 states, a felony conviction means never voting again. In addition, prior incarceration can affect one’s ability to secure certain federal benefits or get a job.

These facts indicate failure of the punishment imperative and demonstrate that reform is overdue. This is especially true given the results of a recent study that showed some black men will spend almost one third of their lives in prison or “marked” with a felony conviction.

Prospects for the future

The United States spends about $80 billion yearly on corrections. As such, the economic crisis of 2008 ignited debate about how to decrease incarceration in the United States.

Such debate bled into discussions about access to high-quality education and health care, differential sentencing, gentrification, joblessness, residential racial segregation, wealth disparities, urban decay and pollution and lingering social inequalities.

Policy makers soon discovered that there was nothing simple about reducing the incarceration rate.

Allowed to continue unreformed, mass incarceration will shape our nation in ways that should repulse anyone who values the correlated concepts of freedom and redemption. Unless we consider mass incarceration a moral and policy failure, it will splinter already fragile families and communities. That will ultimately hurt our entire nation.The Conversation

Tony N. Brown, Associate Professor of Sociology, Vanderbilt University and Evelyn Patterson, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Vanderbilt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Trayvon Martin Is Not Emmett Till

Trayvon Martin Is Not Emmett Till

RELATED BY TRAGEDY: The death of 17-year-old Florida student Trayvon Martin (right) has sparked comparisons with the iconic death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago native who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a White woman.

I have an 18-year-old brother whom I love dearly. He’s an African American college freshman, and sometimes a knucklehead. He has all of the answers and therefore does not always listen to wise counsel. He has never been in trouble with the law, never used drugs, and has never drunk alcohol. Sometimes he leaves the house dressed in a suit. At other times, he leaves dressed in sweats. His attire doesn’t give anyone a license to kill him.

The reality is, I sometimes leave home looking both ways myself. I choose how I dress and what is appropriate for lunch with my girlfriends or a quick grocery-store run. If someone approached me at either location with an armed weapon and I feared for my life, I would do everything I could to defend myself and so would you.

HE COULD'VE BEEN MY BROTHER: Images of Trayvon Martin reminded the author of her own younger brother, pictured above. (Photos by Deronta Robinson)

My initial response to Trayvon Martin’s death was, “That could have been my brother.” As I witness the media hysteria build around the case, I have to sit back for a moment and take inventory of our culture. It would be quite easy to write a Facebook status or change my profile picture to an image of myself in a hoodie. It’s quite easy to march for a day or protest for a month. We may blog about the case, read an article, or discuss it with friends at work, or a Black preacher may shout about this injustice from the pulpit on a particular Sunday, maybe even two, but eventually, we will forget.

The danger in our current outrage is that we might turn Trayvon Martin into a symbol, when in fact he was a real teenager. Some have drawn comparisons between Trayvon and Emmett Till, the Chicago teen whose brutal murder by Mississippi racists in the 1950s helped mobilize the civil rights movement. One commentator suggests Trayvon’s death may be “our Emmett Till moment.”

Trayvon is not the modern-day Emmett Till. Our attention spans are much too short for that, and our thirst for the next trending topic is much too great. We will forget Trayvon Martin. It may not be this week, this month, or this year, but eventually we will all forget.

This is the travesty of the Trayvon Martin situation: injustices like this occur against poor and minority children every day in this country and many pretend not to know. Black-on-Black crime is still real, often effectively ending the lives of both parties. Black kids are still dropping out of school at alarming rates. Young Black men are still checking into prison at rates comparable to those who enroll in college, and too many of them are being raised in homes without fathers. They are struggling in failing public schools. Gangs are lurching around those schools and targeting our children on the streets. Every day young girls are born into welfare-type situations and growing up to repeat the cycles modeled by their mothers simply because they have not witnessed an alternative. These children lose hope long before the age of 18, and as a result they often descend into committing crimes against humanity. We are all guilty. We cut the lives of these kids short and murder them with our complacency and our silence.

Why? Because we are busy. As individuals, we have personal goals of success to pursue. We have to raise our own kids. Our churches are busy with a bunch of good programs and activities which cater to our children. We ignore large chunks of the Bible because they are disruptive to our current lifestyles. Remember the part when Jesus returns and all nations of people are gathered before him? Here is the qualification for entering God’s heavenly kingdom on that day:

“For I [Jesus] was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothe me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him ‘Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:31-40).

Then Jesus proceeds to curse and turn away those who respond in the opposite manner. In this passage, Jesus is not asking whether or not someone recited a profession of faith or was baptized. He is simply asking, “How did you live?” See, the gospel is not something to simply accept and show up for on Sunday mornings. The gospel is life — our day-to-day choices of what we are going to prioritize. Are we going to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and whether or not we are going to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves? That is the critical question that we must ask ourselves every day of our lives. The answer to that question will make all the difference.

The question marks surrounding the Trayvon Martin case may never be resolved. It’s possible that the man who shot him will never be charged. But Trayvon’s life already has been laid down. The question is: Are you willing to lay down your life for those like him?

What are you going to do, Christian? What are you going to do, Church? Are we going to turn our frustrations into something positive that has a lasting impact? Are we going to turn the tide and reclaim responsibility for our children? Are we going get into the schools and communities to teach, mentor, and tutor our young people and equip their mothers and fathers to be better parents? Are we going to continue to murder, or are we going to choose life?

Trayvon Martin and the Myth of the ‘Criminalblackman’

Trayvon Martin and the Myth of the ‘Criminalblackman’

WE ARE TRAYVON: Thousands of protesters demanded justice for Trayvon Martin during the Million Hoodie March on March 21 in New York's Union Square. (Photo: Christopher Sadowski/Newscom)

The Trayvon Martin tragedy is perhaps the most-talked-about news story of this past week, yet a casual scan of Facebook pages and other social media suggests the outrage over Martin’s death does not extend that far beyond the African American community. That’s unfortunate, because this is a story that should upset all Americans, regardless of race, especially those of us in the Christian community.

Trayvon, an African American teenager, was walking down a Central Florida sidewalk when he was targeted by an overzealous neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman. Some sort of confrontation ensued and Trayvon, who was unarmed, was slain by Zimmerman, who claims he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense. The shooting has raised enough suspicions about the incident being racially motivated that the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department have opened investigations.

Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, told CNN, “I think that’s an issue that Mr. Zimmerman himself considers as someone suspicious — a black kid with a hoodie on, jeans, tennis shoes. Thousands of people wear that outfit every day, so what was so suspicious about Trayvon that Zimmerman felt as though he had to confront him?”

The charge brought to mind a recent college class I taught in which I was interrupted in the middle of my lecture by a student who challenged a fact I had just presented about the frequency of highway drug arrests. “I don’t believe it,” he stated. “I was in a car that was stopped once by the cops and we weren’t arrested even though they found marijuana.”

“Where were you, how many of you were in the car,” I asked, “and what races?”

The answer was that he and the four male teens were in a rural area of Ohio not far from their homes, and they were all white.

“So do you think your race and location had anything to do with not being arrested?” I asked. He didn’t.

I knew then I needed a set of facts to convey the reality that he and the other all-white class of students in my college course weren’t able to see — precisely because they were white and had never been viewed suspiciously in their hometowns because of the color of their skin. Michelle Alexander’s much-discussed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, provided those facts.

22 Facts That Challenge Perceptions

As we worked through Michelle Alexander’s book over the course of the next couple of weeks, my students began to rethink their assumptions about how post-racial we as a society really are, even in an era of civil rights and a black president. This happened as they began to understand the reality of what Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor, coins the “criminalblackman.” In condensed form, here are the 22 statistics from her book that — cumulatively grasped — served as the scalpel for removing the colorblind scales from my white students’ eyes:

 To return to 1970 incarceration rates today, we would need to release 4 of every 5 inmates. (p. 218)

Federal law requires that states permanently exclude anyone with a drug-related felony from receiving federally funded public assistance. (p. 153)

Inmates work in prison for less than minimum wage, often for $3.00 an hour but as low as 25 cents an hour, even though child alimony and other payments continue to accrue. (p. 152)

In the last 25 years, multiple fees have been added for those awaiting trial. These include jail book-in fees, jail per diems to cover “room and board” while awaiting trial, public defender application fees, and bail investigation fees. (p. 150)

Post-conviction fees include public defender recoupment fees, work-release program fees, parole fees, probation fees. Example: Ohio courts can order probationers to pay a $50 monthly supervision fees as a condition of probation. (p. 150)

Four of five drug arrests are for possession, not sales, of drugs. (p. 59)

More than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. (p. 59)

There were 3,000 SWAT deployments a year in the early 1980s, but 30,000 by 2001. Driven by federal grants based on arrests, special tactic teams often act in military fashion as they “blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children.” (p. 74)

Forfeiture laws (which allow local police departments to keep a substantial portion of seized assets and cash) are frequently used to allow those with assets to buy their freedom, resulting in most major kingpins getting short sentences or no sentences while small-time dealers or users incur long sentences. (p. 78)

Tens of thousands of poor go to jail each year without ever having talked to a lawyer. In Wisconsin, 11,000 indigent people go to court without legal representation since anyone who earns more than $3,000 a year is considered capable of hiring a lawyer. (p. 83)

Prosecutors routinely “load up” defendants with extra and questionable charges to force them to plead guilty rather than risk longer prison sentences resulting from the trumped up charges. (p. 86)

Some federal judges have quit in protest over minimum sentencing laws, including one conservative judge who quit after being forced by minimum sentencing requirements to impose a five-year sentence on a mother in Washington, D.C., convicted of “possession” of crack found by police in a box her son had hidden in her attic. (p. 91)

Most people convicted of a felony are not sentenced to prison. In 2008, 2.3 million people were in prisons and jails, but another 5.1 million were under probation or on parole. (p. 92)

Even those convicted of a felony for a small amount of drugs are barred from public housing by law and made ineligible for feed stamps.  (p. 92)

By 2000, about as many people were returned to prison for parole violations as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons. One can be returned to prison for any number of parole violations, including being found in the presence of another convicted felon. (p. 93)

“Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” (p. 97)

White young people have three times the number of drug-related emergency room visits as do black youth. (p. 97)

In 2006, 1 of every 14 African Americans was behind bars, compared to 1 of every 106 European Americans. (p. 98)

A study of Maryland highway stops found that only 17 percent of drivers along a stretch of I-95 outside of Baltimore were black, but black people comprised 70 percent of those stopped and searched for drugs. This was the case even though the study found that whites who were stopped were more likely to be found actually carrying contraband in their vehicles than people of color. (p. 131)

States typically have mandatory sentencing for drunk driving (a statistically “white” crime with 78 percent of arrests being white males) of two days in jail for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense, but the “black” crime of possessing even tiny amounts of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison. (p. 201)

White ex-offenders may actually have an easier time gaining employment than African Americans without a criminal record. “To be a black man is to be thought of as a criminal, and to be a black criminal is to be despicable — a social pariah. To be a white criminal is not easy, by any means, but as a white criminal you are not a racial outcast, though you may face many forms of social and economic exclusion. Whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.” (p. 193)

The one statistic, however, that finally broke through the rural white Midwestern defenses was this one: “Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color” (p. 7).

Continued on page 2.

Confronting ‘The New Jim Crow’

Confronting ‘The New Jim Crow’

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.