mass incarceration

Born Suspect

BornSuspect

ON A COOL NIGHT in spring 2006, I knelt with a half-dozen friends on the driveway of North Carolina’s maximum-security prison. When officers came to inform us we were trespassing, we asked if they would join us in prayer against the scheduled execution of Willie Brown. Though one officer thanked us for doing what he could not, we were arrested and carried off to the county jail. Willie Brown died early the next morning.

But this isn’t an article about the death penalty.

At the county jail that evening nearly a decade ago, I was fingerprinted, strip-searched, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, and processed into the general population of an overcrowded cell block. When I walked onto the block, I was greeted almost immediately by a 20-something African-American man who asked me, “What the hell are you doing here?” As I summarized the events of the previous evening that had led to my arrest, he decided I was teachable. “You wanna know how I knew you weren’t supposed to be here?” he asked. “’Cause everybody else in here I knew before they got here. We’re all from the same hood.”

“They only kill people like us,” my teacher at the county jail told me that day. “The train that ends at death row starts here.”

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Viral Art Video Painfully Depicts How Slavery Led to Mass Incarceration

Screenshot via Youtube

Screenshot via Youtube

A new video developed by artist Molly Crabapple and the Equal Justice Initiative shows exactly how slavery paved the way for our current system of mass incarceration.

In particular, the video highlights the horror of the domestic slave trade, tracing the development of an elaborate mythology of racial difference — a mythology that once perpetuated slavery and now sustains mass incarceration.  

“In many former slave states, slavery did not end. It simply evolved,” says narrator Bryan Stevenson, who directs the Equal Justice Initiative.

Molly Crabapple, known for her artistic contributions to Occupy Wall Street, creates videos combining the fast-paced style of dry-erase animation with the intricate watercolors of an award-winning artist.

Jim Crow Again: Lessons for Fighting this Giant

Photo via sakhorn / Shutterstock.com

Photo via sakhorn / Shutterstock.com

One in thirty-one. That’s how many Americans are in in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole. In the U.S., our incarceration rate is 10 times higher than that of other countries while our actual crime rate is lower than those same countries. Citing a 600% increase in the prison population since the 1960’s, with no correlating increase in crime, Michelle Alexander has called mass incarceration “the new Jim Crow.” When people of color represent 30% of the U.S. population, but 60% of those incarcerated, we are in league with David, staring at a towering giant, armed with a prayer and a handful of stones.

While the work before us is daunting, people of faith are called to fight giants. The Spirit who we remember in Pentecost, the Spirit who set the world on fire, has trusted us with this work. We are giant slayers, by God’s grace. For this reason, it is fitting that we revisit the story of the first giant slayer, a young boy who tended sheep and fought off bears and lions.

What Are We Willing to Do?

modera761101 / Shutterstock.com

modera761101 / Shutterstock.com

When we discuss the gospel of Jesus Christ, we realize that it is a revolutionary message asking us to love our enemies, to do good to those who curse us, and even harder, to turn the other cheek. The gospel is going beyond that. It is asking us to receive, stand, advocate for the poor, incarcerated, and those living in the margins who have been pushed out by the institutions of our society. Jesus took many risks at times during his ministry, and when he started turning over tables and exposing the priests’ racket of selling sacrifices, it did not work out so well for him.

I’m not asking people to go and get themselves killed, but just ask yourself, “How much of the gospel am I willing to perform?”

Washing Clean: Germany, Ireland, and Our America

ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com

ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com

It was a devastating weekend for black people in America.

On Friday, a white police officer pulled his gun at a pool party and assaulted a 15-year old black girl who cried for her mom in McKinney, Texas. On Saturday, a young black man committed suicide in his parents’ home in the Bronx after being held without trial at Rikers Island for three years (nearly two in solitary confinement), accused of stealing a backpack — a charge that prosecutors ultimately dropped. On Sunday evening, hotel security officers profiled four young black organizers from Baltimore in the lobby of the Congress Plaza Hotel at the conclusion of The Justice Conference.

Silence Is Violence

Elena Dijour / Shutterstock.com

Elena Dijour / Shutterstock.com

The fight for the preservation of black and brown lives, that took unexpectedly deep roots in Ferguson and has now spread across nations, was a fight many of our students quickly came to lead, and folks like me have followed.

But many of these young people are not Christian, and frankly, the perception that local congregations lackadaisically approached this movement before it became a national headline — and brought a healthy, condescending dose of respectability politics and patriarchy along with their eventual involvement — is not making most of the millennial set excited about the prospects of salvation.

But local faith leaders like Rev. Traci Blackmon and Rev. Starsky Wilson, and others raised in faith like my friend Rich McClure and me, have clung to the radical example of Christ that guides our collective and individual action.

A Miracle of Resilience

MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson, was born in 1890 in Camden, S.C., with a different last name from all the other people in her household. Three generations later, we have no idea where the name Johnson came from.

Lizzie grew up working plantation land owned by her grandmother, Lea Ballard. Lea received the land in the wake of the Civil War: We don’t know how or why, though one theory speculates that Lea, who was listed as a 42-year-old mulatto widow on the 1880 U.S. Census, may have been the daughter of her slave owner. He may have given the land to her after the Civil War. We don’t know. We only know that Lea owned it, that she had 17 children who worked that land, according to family lore, and that the city of Camden eventually stole the land from her by the power of eminent domain. This we know from records I hold in my possession.

Lizzie married a railroad man named Charles Jenkins. Lizzie and Charles had three children; Charles later died in a railroad accident. Lizzie had a choice: endure the brutality of the Jim Crow South alone with three kids, or move with the stream of black bodies migrating north. Lizzie migrated to Washington, D.C., and, eventually, to Philadelphia and took her lightest-skinned child with her.

Both mother and child were light enough to pass for white. My caramel-toned, straight-haired grandmother, Willa, and her brother, Charlie, were too dark. So they were left behind in the care of their elderly great-grandmother. Willa and Charlie joined others on the plantation and earned their keep working the fields.

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July 2015
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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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An Open Letter to Franklin Graham

Image via CreationSwap.com

Image via CreationSwap.com

We don’t know what prompted Rev. Franklin Graham to log onto Facebook and pound out the words that lit a firestorm last week. But within one day, tens of thousands of his faithful followers liked and shared his short, patronizing post that called “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” to “Listen up” and tune in to his take on why so many black people have died at the hands of police officers recently. According to Graham, the problem is “simple.” It can be reduced to their lack of obedience and bad parenting.

By Monday morning, more than 80,000 people shared the post and almost 200,000 liked it. Sojourners’ Jim Wallis penned a strong response.

On Friday an evangelical pastor based in Oakland, Calif. (the birthplace of the Black Lives Matter movement), Dominique Gilliard, shared the post with a small diverse group of evangelical leaders who decided to craft a collective response. This open letter was crafted by the collective efforts of Rev. Leroy Barber (CCDA and Word Made Flesh), Gilliard (New Hope Oakland), Dr. Brian Bantum (Seattle Pacific University), Micky ScottBey Jones (Transform Network), Efrem Smith (World Impact) and me (Sojourners). We didn’t know if our words would resonate. We only knew the truth that we must speak in response to Graham’s outsized influence coupled with apparent ignorance. In the end, a broad representation of national evangelical leaders agreed to sign this letter to Graham as principal signatories.

We invite you to read it, discuss it in your churches, and add your name to the many who say “No more!” We will not tolerate this type of flippant, patronizing commentary from faith leaders on critical issues that mean life and death for many in the body of Christ and in communities across America. We won’t tolerate it, even one more day. Rather, we invite all with open hearts to enter into dialogue — and to join us in the ministry of the gospel — the ministry of reconciliation.

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.

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