Incarceration

Weekly Wrap 4.22.16: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Mourning Prince and David Bowie, Who Showed There’s No Right Way to Be a Man

“… We’ve lost two men who had an expansive, almost luxuriant vision of what it meant to be a man and lived out that vision through decades when it was much less safe to do so.”

2. On Earth Day, a Look at How Americans View Environmental Issues

Should the country do whatever it takes to protect the environment? The number of Republicans who say “yes” has decreased in the past 12 years.

3. Wage Gap Alarm Clock Rings After 79% of the Work Day Is Done So Women Can Go Home

Brilliant.

Banking on Freedom

Brian A. Jackson / Shutterstock
Brian A. Jackson / Shutterstock 

LAST JUNE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY sold all of its shares in the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison corporation in the country, and in G4S, the world’s largest private security firm. In doing so, Columbia became the first U.S. university to completely divest from the $74 billion prison industry.

Though the total amount Columbia divested, roughly $10 million, was not a major financial loss for either company, it was an important win for the students who had been pressuring the university to divest since 2013. “We work in the context of a bigger movement that seeks to break down the notion that prisons and police can solve our problems,” said Asha Rosa, a student organizer with Columbia Prison Divest, part of Students Against Mass Incarceration at the university. “We aim to create a world where people understand that investing in something like a prison is a socially toxic investment.”

Other universities and nonprofits followed suit: In December 2015, the California Endowment—a private, statewide foundation that focuses on health and justice for all Californians—announced it will no longer make direct investments in companies profiting from for-profit prisons, jails, and detention centers. A few weeks later, the University of California divested $25 million. And similar student-led divestment campaigns are underway at universities around the country, including UC Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, and the City University of New York.

For many organizations, the decision to divest from the prison industry is rooted in the organization’s own mission. Divesting is about not wanting to invest “in anything that hurts the people we are trying to support,” explained Maria Jobin-Leeds, a board member of the Schott Foundation and the Access Strategies Fund, two foundations committed to improving the lives of underserved communities, including communities of color. And given the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration has on people of color—in a 2015 speech, President Obama cited a “growing body of research” that shows people of color are more likely than whites to be arrested and more likely to be sentenced for similar crimes—both foundations decided to divest. “Companies that profit from prisons make money off the poorest and are supported by a deeply racist system,” said Jobin-Leeds. “We do not want to make money off this system.”

Profiteers and private prisons

But despite this conviction that divesting was the right move, Jobin-Leeds and her fellow board members realized it wasn’t easy to determine which investments were connected to the prison industry. One reason this was difficult was because of the overall lack of transparency within the prison industry. So while an investor could reasonably deduce that the Corrections Corporation of America manages prisons, she wouldn’t necessarily know that the CCA—like many private prison management companies—has a financial incentive to keep more people in prisons. Which it does: According to a 2013 report, 65 percent of private prison contracts with state prisons regularly stipulate occupancy quotas requiring the state to make payments for empty cells—a de-facto “low-crime tax.”

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Twenty Years of 1 Million or More in Prison: A Reading List

Image via /Shutterstock.com

On Oct. 27, 1994 — 21 years ago today — the U.S. Department of Justice reported that the United States’ prison population had reached over 1 million people. By comparison, that’s the same size as San Jose, Calif.— the tenth biggest city in the US.

Today, the United States’ prison population is over 1.5 million — the size of Philadelphia, Pa., our nation’s fifth largest city.

Yet the size of our prison population — the largest in the world — is only part of the problem. Communities of color and poorer communities are disproportionally sentenced to prison — the result of systemic injustices including income inequality, school-to-prison pipelines, and racial profiling.

We mark many positive anniversaries here at Sojourners, but the work of justice also necessitates recognizing ongoing abuses of human dignity over time. So today, on the grim anniversary of 1 million people housed in our prison system, we choose to remember them and all those still behind bars. Here are ten articles we’re re-reading today about mass incarceration — and how to end it.

Rewriting a Prison Sentence

Photo courtesy Free Minds

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM in the United States is gaining momentum with each graphic video showing fatal police abuse. In the aftermath of the many deaths of unarmed black men and women and the city-wide protests that erupted in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, it is not surprising that presidential hopefuls are making bold public statements about the need to change a system that is profoundly unjust, overly punitive, and excessively costly to run.

At the other end of the spectrum, away from TV cameras and political wrangling, activists such as Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor, co-founders of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, are dealing with decades of draconian anti-crime policies that have resulted in mass incarceration rates marked by racial disparities that have had a devastating impact on families and communities.

The numbers speak for themselves. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has nearly 25 percent of its prison population. According to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization working to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, more than 2.2 million Americans are now locked up in prisons and jails across the country—a 500-percent increase over the past 30 years. Furthermore, those who are incarcerated come largely from the most disadvantaged segments of the population.

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Mass Incarceration: The Politics Behind the Bars

Mass incarceration means 2.4 million Americans behind bars; 2.7 million children with parents in prison, on probation, or on parole; and1.5 million black and brown men missing from their homes. It means having more prisons in America than high school teachers. Most importantly, it means that something in this broken system must change. And as Tobias Winright writes in “A Matter of Degrees,” (Sojourners, June 2015) prison-based education programs—for both inmates and correctional officers—provide a good place to start. 

Read the infographic below to learn more. 

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A Matter of Degrees

THREE DECADES AGO I did a four-year stint behind bars. I wasn’t incarcerated—I worked as a correctional officer at the maximum security jail for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Clearwater, Fla. It wasn’t a career I planned on pursuing.

After high school, I couldn’t afford higher education. I earned an associate’s degree from the local community college, working initially at a video game arcade, then at a factory my dad owned. At the time, I was thinking about a career in law, so my mother and stepfather, both of whom were patrol deputies, suggested that I apply for a job at local law enforcement agencies in order to pay my way through school; the sheriff’s department where they worked ended up hiring me. That’s how I earned my bachelor’s degree while working full time as one of the youngest correctional officers at the jail.

During the semesters I worked the night shift at the jail, I took classes during the day; when I worked the day shift, I took night classes. The contrast between the classrooms and the battleship gray corridors lined with steel-barred cells was striking. At the time, I did not like the jail job; I couldn’t wait until I could “escape” to graduate school.

THAT WAS A long time ago. I did make it to graduate school, though I wound up studying theological ethics, not law, and eventually became a professor. But those four years in a Florida jail were a formative time for me—a time that continues to inform my teaching and writing.

Those memories grew especially vivid last year while I was teaching an ethics course for corrections officers and staff at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center. The maximum security facility, located 60 miles south of St. Louis in the small town of Bonne Terre, is Missouri’s largest state prison, holding more than 2,600 inmates.

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Second Chances: A Deeply Biblical Value

A dove flies above a cage of glass. Image courtesy Yu Lan/shutterstock.com.
A dove flies above a cage of glass. Image courtesy Yu Lan/shutterstock.com.

It’s no secret that the prison population in the United States has exploded in recent decades. We incarcerate our citizens at higher rates than any other developed nation. The federal prison population has increased by almost 790 percent since 1980. The number of children with one or more incarcerated parents has increased at an astonishing rate of 80 percent since 1991.

The mass incarceration of mostly Black and Latino men and women has moral implications in two ways. First, our current “tough-on-crime” approach to criminal justice has cost taxpayers a substantial amount with little effect on crime rates. These tax dollars could be spent instead on education, mental health, or drug rehabilitation. The way we spend public money reflects our public values. (Sound familiar?)

In addition, there are far-reaching moral implications of the act of naming someone “criminal." This label is inhumane, unjust, and unholy.

The “criminal” label has devastating effects on quality of life and equality of opportunity for many individuals. It is nearly impossible to shake. Most federal education grants are not available to someone with a criminal background. In many cities, access to subsidized or public housing is banned based on arrests or incarceration. Many states ban those with criminal backgrounds from food stamp eligibility. Being forced tocheck the box on an employment application indicating a past felony conviction essentially lands that application in the trash. The Sentencing Project estimates a total of 5.85 million people have been banned from voting because of a past conviction.

But Christians have a unique, biblically-based perspective on labels. In Christ, “sinners” become “beloved ones." The excluded, hated, and oppressed become included, wanted, and loved.

In and Out of the Zoo

 Zoo animals, Sviatlana St / Shutterstock.com
Zoo animals, Sviatlana St / Shutterstock.com

One time I took a group of people in the drug rehab program to the local zoo. Most of our group had been to prison – some for years. Most were felons. Most of the women had been prostitutes as well as addicts. Most of them had been homeless, had lengthy criminal records and had, as a group, used virtually every drug — heroin, meth, crack cocaine — and had used every deception, scam, or theft to acquire their drugs. In short, they had been desperate in ways and to a degree most of us could never imagine. If you think a hungry man will commit extreme acts for food to keep from starving, an addict will commit acts a hundred times more extreme. There are few acts an addict will not do.

And yet, few of these former addicts had ever been to a zoo.

One of these people, a woman in her mid-40s, couldn’t contain her excitement as we walked into sight of the resident animals. She shrieked and ran from exhibit to exhibit — until she saw the elephants. We happened to catch the trainer as he was giving a little question-and-answer time. This woman had endless, little kid-type questions about how elephants ate, slept, how they lived, and where they came from.

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.

Showing Deference to the Rich: 'Affluenza' and 'The House I Live In'

Courtesy WFAA-TV and Charlotte Street Films
Ethan Crouch (left) and Kevin Ott (right). Courtesy WFAA-TV and Charlotte Street Films

I recently watched Eugene Jarecki’s remarkable documentary, The House I Live In, which is about the American ‘war on drugs’ and the burgeoning prison population it engendered and continues to engender.

Rarely do I find myself murmuring and tsk-tsking during a movie, but this one was highly affecting — an intimate look at how history, racism, economics, and politics have created a system that no one is proud of and no one really likes. Even the cops and prison guards who claim to love their jobs express unease with the human suffering and unbalanced scales of justice that lead to it.

One particular story has stayed with me.

A man named Kevin Ott was found in possession of a small envelope of meth; prior to that he’d been arrested twice, again for possessing small amounts of illegal drugs (meth and marijuana).

He’s been in prison for seventeen years. And he will be there until he dies: Ott is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Because he was a three-time offender, his state’s mandatory sentencing laws required that he be put away for life.

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