mass incarceration

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

Lisa Sharon Harper is Chief Church Engagement Officer for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.

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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Mass Incarceration: The Politics Behind the Bars

Lani Prunés is an editorial assistant to Sojourners magazine. You can find her on Twitter @blanip.

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.

Is Dark Skin A Sin?

Song of Solomon photo, Joe Fallico / Shutterstock.com

Song of Solomon photo, Joe Fallico / Shutterstock.com

I am black, but [AND] comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother's children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept. Song of Songs 1: 5-6

As the Executive Director for Faith in New York, an affiliate of the PICO National Network, I organize faith communities to take action for justice concerning issues that threaten the health of our communities. One of our campaigns is Live Free New York, which is a part of a national movement in which people of faith are working to end mass incarceration, gun violence, and police brutality through policy change and direct action.

Mass incarceration is an issue with many tentacles, and in New York, one tentacle is school suspension rates that are through the roof for black children. What many in the black community don’t understand is that according to data from the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, as presented in a recent New York Times article: “black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide are suspended at a rate of 12 percent compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls and more than girls of any race or ethnicity. … An analysis by Villanova [University] researchers of data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicated that black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.”

A Mandatory Mistake

Ruslan Grumble / Shutterstock.com

Ruslan Grumble / Shutterstock.com

On a July afternoon in 1995, a 33-year-old man named Curtis Wilkerson walked into a store, stole one pair of socks, and was promptly arrested. This wasn’t Wilkerson’s first crime, but it was surprising, considering his long streak of good behavior. The last time he was trouble with the law was when he was in his teens, after two offenses for abetting robbery. He was sentenced to six years.

After his release from that sentence, Wilkerson cleaned his life up. Instead of running the streets for money, he drove a forklift. All things considered, he was a “success story,” earnestly walking that “straight and narrow” path — up until, that is, those gorgeous socks waved his way.

Why he did it remains a mystery. But since I was once an angsty teenage shoplifter, I imagine he was probably just bored. Hungry for a momentary thrill. An innocent-ish high. I imagine him thinking, it’s just a pair of socks. $2.50. Not much more than a pack of gum.

But be it socks or a Chevy Silverado, the state of California did not care. Shortly following his arrest, he was brought before a judge and sentenced to life in prison.

In California, the three-strikes law was the law of the land. A type of mandatory minimum sentencing law, the law required judges to punish defendants guilty of their third felony with 25 years to life in prison. Stolen socks, most of the time, would’ve counted as a misdemeanor. But, and likely because he was black, Wilkerson was charged with a felony, his third strike. And consequently, was given the harshest punishment in the history of stolen socks.

In 2012, California voters approved a measure to reform the law, making mandatory life sentences only applicable to “serious” felonies, but even still, Wilkerson remains behind bars.

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