De-Incarceration: A Different Drum So Needed | Sojourners

De-Incarceration: A Different Drum So Needed

Image via VCNV photos.

Along with Voice for Creative Nonviolence companions, I’m part of a 150-mile walk from Chicago to Thomson, Ill., a small town where the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is setting up an administrative maximum prison, also known as a “supermax.” Prison laborers from U.S. minimum security prisons now labor to turn what once was an Illinois state prison into a federal supermax detention facility with 1,900 cells that will confine prisoners for 23 hours of every day.

Drivers seeing us with our signs often wave or honk approval as they whiz past us on the road. “Education not Incarceration” says one sign. “Build hospitals, not Prisons,” says another. But yesterday, a woman speaking with Maya Evans, who is from the U.K., surprised us with her venom.

After listening to Maya’s suggestion that U.S. people would be better off spending resources on health care and education, the woman said, “Well, if we would shoot the bastards we wouldn’t have to put them in prison.”

Then Razia, from Pakistan and one of the walkers, said “That’s what President Obama does overseas with the drone attacks.”

Razia’s right, I think. Sadly, as Adam Hochschild recently wrote in The New York Times, “The prison-industrial complex is now as deeply rooted as its military counterpart. With both corporate profits and government salaries at stake, it will be equally difficult to shrink or transform.”

Hochschild also notes that 67.8 percent of U.S. prisoners return to prison within three years of their release. Who benefits from this system? Who are Senator Durbin and Representative Bustos aiming to please by favoring construction of a supermax prison in Thomson, Ill.?

Each morning, before we begin walking, we form a circle and spend a short time thinking, together, about eventual inhabitants of the cruel cells we’re walking toward. Inmates will live in tortuous solitary confinement. How will their punishment affect their families and, for that matter, the employees assigned to punish them?

I think of the Celestial Ministries drum line in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood, one of the poorest areas of Chicago. These talented young teens pound mightily on their drums, creating magnificent sound, fierce and compelling. They are children of parents who are incarcerated. Stanley Ratliff, a former prisoner, founded the Celestial Ministries Drill Team Drum Line after his own son was killed by gun violence. He wanted to help keep young people in his neighborhood from being part of the “rail to jail” syndrome, and so he and other volunteers staff a center where the children can find community and an outlet for their artistry. Interestingly, then-governor of Illinois Jim Edgar gave clemency to Ratliff, reducing his prison sentence.

The solution to our awful prison problem is contained in the story of Gov. Edgar, Ratliff, and Celestial Ministries: Make a preferential option for those who are most impoverished in our midst. We might fund these efforts by taking money away from the corporations promoting criminal attacks on innocent people in other lands.

And we can do our best to hear from and learn from the counterparts to Chicago’s wondrous Celestial Ministries drum line, assuring that they’ll never be beaten into submission in a solitary confinement cell, but rather lead us to the tune of a different drummer — the one the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the drum major for peace.