imprisonment

Possibility of Escape

'Freedom beyond the window,' Giggietto / Shutterstock.com

'Freedom beyond the window,' Giggietto / Shutterstock.com

That is also us, the possibility of us, if the wonderful accident of our birth had taken place elsewhere: you could be the refugee, I could be the torturer. To face that truth is also our burden. After all, each of us has been the bystander, the reasonable person who just happens not to hear, not to speak, not to see those people, the invisible ones, those who live on the other side of the border. - Karen Connelly, The Lizard Cage

It was a little over two weeks ago that Marlo entered Atwood Hall here in Lexington federal prison. Nearly all the women here are nonviolent offenders. When I first saw Marlo, her eyes seemed glued to the tiled floors as she shuffled along hallways. I guessed her age to be 25 or so. A few days later, she came to a choir rehearsal. She was still shy, but she looked up and offered a quiet smile when she joined the soprano section. The next time our choir gathered, Marlo raised her hand before we ended our rehearsal. "I got something to say," she said, as she stood. "When I first came here, I can tell all of you now, I was terrified. Just plain terrified. I have 70 months, and I felt so scared." The intake process for this, her introduction to the prison system, had badly frightened her, but before sundown that same day, a second intake process had occurred, with several inmates finding her, reassuring her, and getting her beyond that first panic.

During my four stints in U.S. federal prisons, I've witnessed long-term inmates' unconquerably humane response when a newcomer arrives. An unscripted choreography occurs, and the new prisoner finds that other women will help her through the trauma of adjustment to being locked up for many months or years. Halfway through a 3-month sentence myself, I'm saddened to realize that I'll very likely adapt to an outside world for which these women, and prisoners throughout the U.S. prison system, are often completely invisible.

The Biblical Case Against the Death Penalty, From a Former Supporter

Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com

Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com

“Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

I despise labels, but I guess you can’t get away from them. For example, I am called an American (a label). I would prefer to be called a United States Citizen because the term “American” is ethnocentristicThe term should mean I am part of the American continents, but it is never used that way. “American” is almost always used to refer to a person who lives in the United States. However, Canadians and Mexicans are also Americans; and so are Hondurans and Brazilians.

I wish I could simply be called “Christian.” But that label necessitates the need for additional labels. Am I Protestant or Catholic? Am I orthodox or neo-orthodox? Am I a fundamentalist, an evangelical, or main-line? Am I emergent, traditional, liberal, progressive, or contemporary? To which denomination do I belong, or am I non-denominational? Maybe I am inter-denominational? Am I charismatic or cessastionist?

It’s maddening!

My preference would be to be called a follower of Jesus. But what does that mean?

Then there are political labels … and they are the worst!

Am I conservative or liberal? Am I a Republican or Democrat or Independent or Libertarian or something else? Am I pro-life or pro-choice? Am I a patriot or and antagonizer? Am I a capitalist, socialist, or communist? Where do I stand on gun rights? What about human rights, or same-sex marriage, or LBGT issues, or immigration, or Obamacare, etc., etc., etc … blah, blah, blah …

Why can’t I just be me?

It’s a lost cause. No matter how hard I try not to be boxed in, people label me. So, let me give you my best shot at who I am based on labels. (Of course, if your definition of the labels is not the same as my definition, then we will have a hard time communicating.) Here goes:

Mandatory Minimums: How Long Does it Take to Learn Your Lesson?

Mass incarceration illustration, Linda Bucklin/ Shutterstock.com

Mass incarceration illustration, Linda Bucklin/ Shutterstock.com

Before selling illegal drugs, Dejarion Echols worked several years for a youth correctional agency and a psychiatric residential-treatment facility for teenagers. He decided to pursue a college education but couldn’t afford to be a full-time student. Desperate to make money, the unemployed, 23-year-old, engaged father of two sold crack cocaine for six months in 2004.

Any chance Dejarion had for a meaningful, productive life quickly ended. On a tip, police searched his home, found 44 grams of crack cocaine, $5,700, and an unloaded rifle. After pleading guilty, Dejarion received two mandatory 10-year sentences: one for the drugs, the other for the gun.

Dejarion admits he sold drugs. He denies the gun had been used in illegal-drug activity.

The presiding federal judge, Walter S. Smith, expressed frustration at having to impose such a sentence. “This is one of those situations where I’d like to see a congressman sitting before me,” he said, explaining that he was powerless to reduce it because of federal mandatory-minimum sentencing law.

Enacted by Congress decades ago, mandatory-minimum sentences have dramatically affected the federal criminal-justice system. Since 1980, the federal prison population has increased 800 percent , largely due to drug-related mandatory-minimum sentences. The federal system is the largest in the United States holding 217,000 prisoners, half of whom are incarcerated for a drug offense. Fewer than 8 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated for a violent crime.

On Scripture: Pressing On Toward Higher Goals

Atop a mountain, Pavel Ilyukhin / Shutterstock.com

Atop a mountain, Pavel Ilyukhin / Shutterstock.com

I have often wondered about the trajectories my life has taken. I was raised a Latino Pentecostal in New York City but educated in a liberal arts tradition at Columbia University in Manhattan. I was exposed to evangelical and then liberal Protestant traditions in seminary and graduate school. My theological views have changed over the years. I have moved from Pentecostal to Baptist to Congregational (United Church of Christ) church traditions. 

Yet at each step of the way, I have been able to build on the solid foundations of the past in moving to new understandings for the new circumstances in my life. These life transitions never started from “scratch.” Some of these same tensions might have motivated Paul in considering, at least rhetorically, his past a “loss” in comparison to a new way of living and being in Philippians 3:4b-14.

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In these days, what are the sources of such life-altering “new knowledge?” There are many places for us to turn. Though I grew up without guns, I was surrounded by plenty of gun violence in my inner city neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. In the aftermath of the tragic losses of our children and educators in Newtown, Conn., I wonder if we have gained any new knowledge. Apparently, we live in a country that values the freedom to own guns, even overly powerful ones like assault rifles. “Second Amendment rights” are invoked as if our founders could predict the kinds of weapons that would be available to regular Americans today, even with the “militia” (local police forces) that we also have available to us. 

Africa Rises, China Falls on Christian Persecution List

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

Christian Maronite church in Aleppo, hit by a rocket in September. JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON The persecution of Christians “vastly rose” in 2012 as radical Islamists consolidated power in Africa, according to Open Doors, a Christian missionary organization which publishes an annual list of offending nations.

Increasing threats to African Christians can be seen in focused attacks, such as the killings of Christians in Nigerian churches by the radical Muslim group Boko Haram, but also in the greater prevalence of radical Muslims in government, according to the California-based Open Doors.

In Mali, for example, which made the biggest leap on the “World Watch List,” from unranked in 2011 to No. 7 in 2012, a coup in the north brought fundamentalist Muslims to power. 

“The situation in the north used to be a bit tense, but Christians and even missionaries could be active,” said Open Doors spokesman Jerry Dykstra.

Death Penalty for Jesus

Stained glass window of Jesus scourging, Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com

Stained glass window of Jesus scourging, Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com

In 2009, after moving to Southern California, a neighbor, Tom Rotert, who is an attorney, asked about my reporting on wrongful convictions and wrongful executions while I was at the Chicago Tribune.

I explained that along with my fellow reporter Steve Mills, we had documented numerous wrongful convictions in Illinois and the executions of two innocent men in Texas — Carlos DeLuna and Cameron Todd Willingham.

 “You know who the ultimate wrongful execution is, don’t you?” Rotert asked. “It was Jesus Christ. They killed the son of God.”

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ doesn’t come up very often in discussions about wrongful convictions in America, but as California voters prepare to go to the polls to vote on Proposition 34 which would ban the death penalty in this state, two lawyers — one from Chicago and one from Minneapolis — are doing exactly that.

Visiting Jesus in Jail

Prison photo, luxorphoto / Shutterstock.com

Prison photo, luxorphoto / Shutterstock.com

What struck me as he spoke was the sheer human potential of this my client, wasted. That matters for all of us because of an unflinching Scriptural text about how we can enter the kingdom of God: “for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me….just as you did it to the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:35-40)

That’s the test. Not beliefs or intentions. Actions. 

Specific actions: Jesus tells us to visit people considered the worst among us, those accused of breaking the law. 

It’s not just innocent prisoners we are to see; it’s prisoners. They are all Jesus. 

Alabama Needs to Put People Before Profits

Photo illustration, Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Photo illustration, Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Living in poverty has always been a struggle, but in Alabama being poor could land you in prison. According to a recent story in The New York Times, Alabama resident Gina Ray was locked up for over a month because she couldn’t pay fees and fines related to minor traffic offenses. Speeding while poor shouldn’t land someone in jail. This punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

Why would such morally outrageous penalties be imposed for such minor violations? Because criminal justice has become big business. Private companies are making millions of dollars running prisons, administering probation systems, and providing health care to those living behind bars.

Don't Make Dialogue Illegal: Standing Up for Persecuted LGBT in Uganda

This week, I and many U.S. Christian leaders signed on to a letter, concerning a re-introduced version of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, a bill which perpetuates some alarming and hateful language about the LGBT community in Uganda, and indeed, around the world. When it was originally introduced in 2009, it made homosexuality an act punishable by death. While the most draconian measures have been removed, the bill still calls for life imprisonment for people who are homosexual, and makes even discussions about sexual orientation illegal, stifling any opportunity to build a civil and constructive dialogue. How can we expect to come together to bridge the divides if we cannot even bring ourselves to sit down together and talk? What is even more heartbreaking, so surprising, is that Christian leaders in Uganda continue to support it.

What are we calling for in this letter? It is a simple message, and one that all who profess a Christian faith should be able to agree with:

All human beings have been created in the image and likeness of God, and Christ teaches that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. All acts of bigotry and hatred betray these foundational truths.

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