Prison

Messed

Konstantin Yolshin / Shutterstock
Konstantin Yolshin / Shutterstock

How could I not? How could I benefit from the messed-up grace of God that allows me to be seen by God on high not as a horrible sinner full and capable of every last deadly sin but as a beloved child and not see others differently myself? It’s messed up, but it’s true.

It’s impossible to laugh, pray, and sing old gospel songs with men who’ve raped and murdered, who’ve sold drugs to children, carjacked strangers, shot girlfriends, buried bodies in woods and not see grace.

I could not look at lines of incarcerated men, ready for a day’s work under the gun (literally), and not shudder at past (and sometimes present) atrocities and injustices. And yet, I could only hope for redemption for this land that no longer grows cotton and for these men who no longer have freedom.

And there’s no way I could rub puppies’ tummies while talking to an inmate-cowboy about dogs, to hear him tell me lots of guys here are like pit bulls because they think they’re tough, but that those guys don’t know—“They’re just silly snuggle bugs,” he says—and me not feel the peace of Christ descend.

I don’t know why. I don’t know how. I just know it’s true: When we visit prisoners, we visit Christ. All during my time in Angola, I saw Jesus everywhere.

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Solitary Torture

albund / Shutterstock
albund / Shutterstock

IN MY HUMAN development class recently, the instructor showed a documentary about a 13-year-old girl with the pseudonym Genie. Her parents kept her in isolation for most of her life, until a social worker discovered her. Genie was kept in a room, tied to a chair, with virtually no human contact. She was “uncivilized” and could barely walk or talk. While my classmates gasped in horror at the video, I found myself relating to her.

I had been incarcerated in a California juvenile hall for four-and-a-half years. Roughly two months of that time was spent in solitary confinement—the longest stretch was six weeks. Like Genie, I was isolated in a room for 23 to 24 hours a day.

My classmates thought that Genie’s parents were “monsters” and “horrible” people. I wondered how many of them knew that we live in a country where youth and adults are commonly put in similar conditions for months or even years.

Today about 100,000 people—including thousands of youth—are held in solitary confinement housing units in juvenile facilities and adult jails and prisons across the United States. Systems use solitary confinement, or isolation, to keep individuals safe from themselves or others and for punishment. Solitary confinement has been linked to depression, anti-social behavior, anxiety, psychological damage, and self-harm. We now understand that solitary confinement does not keep us safe and does more harm than good, especially to youth who are still developing, physically and mentally.

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Not Your Mama's Prison Ministry

Alex Garland
Alex Garland

ON THE SUNNY Monday before Easter 2015, roughly 60 people, some wearing clerical collars, gathered in front of Key Arena in Seattle. “Build futures, not cages,” one sign read. “Love youth/build hope/invest in futures,” read another.

The timing of this protest against a proposed new youth jail in Seattle’s Central District was no accident: Activists had dubbed it Holy Table-Turning Monday, a commemoration of Jesus flipping over the tables of money changers in the temple square in Jerusalem.

The group, a mix of church people—Methodist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, and others—and organizers from Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) and Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), crossed the street and entered the lobby of a building housing the offices of Howard S. Wright, the contractor hired to construct the proposed detention center. An uneasy PR man walked out from the glass-walled offices and chatted with a pastor in a purple stole.

Meanwhile, members of the group set up a card table and laid a purple tablecloth on it. They piled it high with nickels, symbolizing the 30 pieces of silver Judas received in exchange for his betrayal of Jesus, and cards with hand-written messages. “Change agent,” one said. “Be accountable to our history and dismantle the prison-industrial complex,” said another. The group prayed, acknowledging their own complicity in the system they sought to destroy. Then, as a unit, they flipped the table over.

Nickels crashed to the ground and the tablecloth fell in a heap of purple and lace. Folding up the table, the group walked out. A few office workers peeked out into the lobby.

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Letters

Everett Historical / Shutterstock
Everett Historical / Shutterstock
A Way Forward

Thank you for publishing Jim Wallis’ excerpt “Crossing the Bridge to a New America” in the February 2016 issue. It has injected in me some much-needed optimism and energy. The idea that racism is, indeed, America’s original sin is a powerful one that imbues in our fight against it a new hope. That we can and need to repent from this awful and systemic plague is both challenging and encouraging. With the murders of so many people of color—including Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland, among too many others—it becomes easy to slip into resigned indifference. But Wallis reminds us that we, as both a nation and as a church, need to accept and act on the truth, for it is the only way forward.

Charlene Cruz-Cerdas
Manchester, New Hampshire

The Original ‘Original Sin’

Regarding the excerpt of Jim Wallis’ America’s Original Sin in the February issue, it seems to me that our treatment of Native Americans is just as much our “original sin” as our treatment of slaves.

Anne Courtright
Pueblo, Colorado

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Confronted by the Truth

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison
Writing My Wrongs

MY SON WAS 10 YEARS, and the sight of an envelope addressed in his squiggly handwriting filled my spirit with joy. But as I tore open the envelope and began reading, I saw that this letter was different from the ones he had sent before.

In the top right-hand corner, Li’l Jay had written in big, capital letters:

MY MOM TOLD ME WHY YOU’RE IN JAIL, BECAUSE OF MURDER! DON’T KILL DAD PLEASE THAT IS A SIN. JESUS WATCHES WHAT YOU DO. PRAY TO HIM.

I stared at the small paragraph for what felt like hours. My body trembled violently, and everything inside of me threatened to break in half. For the first time in my incarceration, I was hit with the truth that my son would grow up to see me as a murderer.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about it before. It’s not that I was planning to hide my past from my son—it’s just that I thought I would be able to sit down and explain it to him when I felt he was mature enough for the conversation. But as I read Li’l Jay’s words, reality kicked me in the gut, and the pain of not knowing what to say spread through my body like cancer.

I didn’t know the context of the conversation that he had with his mother, so I wasn’t sure how to respond. The only thing I was sure of was that I had to do everything in my power to turn my life around. It was the only way I could show my son that I was not a monster.

His letter continued:

Dear daddy, I wonder how you’re doing in there. I’m doing fine. When I think about you, it makes me feel sad with no daddy around to wake me up and go work out and be strong like you. I have to do it all by myself. It bothers me the way I miss you. I pray and pray one day my prayer may come true and we’ll be together 4 life. It’s the anger in my heart that hurts me most without a dad in the house. My mama said I am the man of the house. She tells me I have to take over the anger so I won’t be in jail.

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Study: Mass Incarceration Is Spreading to Suburbs and Rural Counties

Image via  / Shutterstock.com

A new study from the Vera Institute of Justice suggests that mass incarceration, typically focused in urban centers, is growing fastest in suburbs and rural areas.

The U.S. already has a massive imprisonment problem — despite having 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. And now, the problem is spreading beyond cities. In 2014, densely-populated counties had 271 inmates in jail per 100,000 people, whereas sparsely-populated counties had 446 inmates per 100,000 people — nearly double the amount.

Twelve Years for a Paintbrush

sakhorn / Shutterstock
Sakhorn / Shutterstock

EARLY ONE SUNDAY MORNING, I drive to the Durham Correctional Center to pick up Greg. He’s spent the past 16 months at a state prison down east, working overtime in the kitchen so he could get out six weeks early. A few days ago, the Department of Corrections transferred him to this local minimum-security facility. Greg knows the place well. He’s walked out of here more times than he can count.

“Feel good to be out?” I ask as we walk through the gate of the chain-link fence, nodding goodbye to the guards. “You know it does,” Greg says, his back straight and his eyes fixed on the horizon. He’s relishing this taste of freedom.

But Greg knows this pleasure is fleeting. As good as it might feel to walk through the gate and hop in a car, leaving prison doesn’t mean you get to leave this part of your life behind.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 2.4 million Americans are locked behind bars (and 12 million cycle through local jails each year). At any given time, some 6 million Americans are caught up in the criminal justice system—if not behind bars, then checking in with a parole officer who can carry them back to jail for the smallest of transgressions. Like Greg, a disproportionate number of those impacted by the U.S. criminal justice system are African American.

Even if you walk out of the gate like Greg, time served, you still have to deal with the debts that ruined your credit while you were locked away. You still have to rebuild relationships that were cut off because you spent the past decade behind bars. You still have to check the box on almost every job application that says you’re a convicted felon.

I live in a home named Rutba House, where we have opened our doors to friends like Greg who are coming home from prison. Doing so has helped me see that our country’s original sin of race-based slavery has shifted its shape again in the 21st century. As the Black Lives Matter movement has tried to make clear on America’s streets, race still matters. But in light of the fact that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, we cannot understand race in America today without understanding prisons.

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

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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.

Thinking Outside the Box

Aaron Amat / Shutterstock
Aaron Amat / Shutterstock 

IN DECEMBER 2011, Eddie Bocanegra, a congregational organizer-in-training, invited me to a meeting held by members of the Illinois-based Community Renewal Society (CRS), a faith-based organization that works with communities to address institutional racism and poverty. I was researching how faith-based organizations facilitated recovery from gang life. However, I was also to learn how formerly incarcerated persons use faith to change their communities.

There were 30 people at the meeting—black, white, and Latino—from diverse Christian backgrounds: Baptist, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox. First, Bocanegra shared his testimony: The Illinois governor and the United Nations had recognized Bocanegra for his work in violence prevention, but the stigma of his old gang life and criminal record overshadowed his qualifications for employment.

We were asked to think of solutions to “records discrimination.” One person recalled visiting the state capital to lobby for ban-the-box legislation to remove the felony conviction question from employment applications. From that meeting arose a campaign against records discrimination. With the guidance of a CRS organizer, Bocanegra helped found and lead an ex-offender-led civic group called Fighting to Overcome Records and Create Equality (FORCE). Eighteen months later, FORCE earned its first legislative victory: Illinois House Bill 3061, which expanded the list of offenses that can be sealed for employment application background checks.

The National Employment Law Project reports that people like Bocanegra are not alone—65 million Americans have a criminal record. Even for those with low-level convictions, a criminal record carries a stigma and often relegates them to unemployment. While the dominant narrative of re-entry tells us that if the formerly incarcerated obey laws and accept social conditions they will be redeemed as good citizens, this is simply not true. In fact, such “blanket discrimination” against formerly incarcerated persons has a racially disparate impact that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

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PLUS: Poetry Written by Members of the Free Minds Book Club

Poet Ambassadors / Photo courtesy of Free Minds

The Forgiveness

By Steven

I forgive my dad for walking out on his only son
I forgive the people who think they get over
When they assume that I’m dumb
I forgive life for dealing me this hand
I forgive my inner boy for not becoming a man
I forgive the man who bumped me
Because he couldn’t see
I forgive ...
But I can’t forgive everything
Because I’ve yet to forgive me ...

Steven is an active member of the Free Minds Book Club.

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