Incarceration

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.

Remembering Our True Source of Joy

BortN66/Shutterstock

There are some who will spend this Christmas in prison due to unfair drug sentencing laws. BortN66/Shutterstock

As we prepare for the coming of Christ, the third Sunday of advent is celebrated in joy. As followers of Christ, it is reasonable to be exuberant about the birth of our Savior. The amount of happiness that can seep from the soul in response to a virgin birth, a perfect baby boy, and an adorable scene of livestock and shepherds befriending God’s family is immeasurable. Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and yes, even Christmas presents add to the joy and never fail to put a smile on my face. 

This past weekend, as I tried to reflect on what it means to be joyful in Christ, my heart was temporarily hardened as I attended a Reentry Arts & Information Fair for returning citizens. I helped host a table for Becoming Church and their Why We Can’t Wait initiative.

Congress, Please.

U.S. Capitol Building. Photo: trekandshoot / Shutterstock

I live in community. What constitutes living in community means different things depending on whom you're talking to. To my 80-year-old grandmother it means that I have joined a cult. In reality, I live with my 10 fellow interns.

Together, we are all learning what it means to live and function as a cohort, how to pour the love of Christ into one another, and how to borrow strength from friends when we need it most. This includes sharing a home, sharing a budget, and sharing the last bit of ice cream that is left in the freezer.

A few nights ago during dinner sharp demands bounced from person to person. Many of our simple requests were stated as demands. Of course, when feeding 10 hungry people there is understandably a bit of an urgency to get food. But, there were no pleases and very few thank-yous.

Why I Chained Myself to a Deportation Bus

Operation Streamline protest, photo from AFSC Photos, Flickr.com

Operation Streamline protest, photo from AFSC Photos, Flickr.com

On Oct. 11, I spent the morning under the front wheel of a bus filled with shackled immigrants. I joined this action with other community members to stop the two Homeland Security buses (operated by private contractor Wackenhut) from making it to the Operation Streamline proceedings at the Tucson federal courthouse. The buses were held and the front gate of the courthouse blocked for more than four hours, and Operation Streamline was ultimately cancelled for the day.

As my arms were locked around the wheels of the bus, I felt baptized into a deeper spirit of solidarity than I have ever known. Every one of the more than 70 immigrants on board those buses was shackled around their wrists and ankles. They were treated as if they were the biggest threats imaginable to our national security. During the action, the immigrants on the buses lifted their chains up to be seen through the darkened windows, and some of them put their palms together in front of their faces in a gesture of prayer and recognition of the meaning of the action. Other protestors at the scene had made signs in Spanish to communicate with the immigrants, with messages of: "Your struggle is our struggle;" "We are here defending your rights;" "You are not alone;" "We are with you, keep fighting;" "To desire a better life is not a crime."

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