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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Sister Helen Prejean: Tsarnaev ‘Genuinely Sorry for What He Did’

Sr. Helen Prejean. Photo via REUTERS / Judy Fidkowski / RNS

Sr. Helen Prejean. Photo via REUTERS / Judy Fidkowski / RNS

Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist whose story came to fame with the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, took the stand on May 11 in the penalty phase of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial. She said he is “genuinely sorry for what he did,” and told her how he felt about the suffering he caused to the bombing’s victims.

“He said it emphatically,” Prejean said.

“He said no one deserves to suffer like they did.”

Possibility of Escape

'Freedom beyond the window,' Giggietto /

'Freedom beyond the window,' Giggietto /

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.

Gatekeepers of Redemption: Conservative Evangelicals Are Changing Their Mind on the Death Penalty

Photo via View Apart /

Photo via View Apart /

“But it was an accident! … He said it was a black-skinned boy who sort of looked like my son.”

“It’s all based on circumstantial evidence. It’s not fair!”

“We didn’t have money for a defense attorney!””

All of these assertions are regularly heard in court rooms across the country as the fate of yet another person’s life is determined in a death penalty case. “Gatekeepers of Redemption” – that is what I call them – the decision makers in capital punishment. Yet as I think about the death penalty movement and the shift that seems to be occurring within it, I am beginning to see an inkling of hope.

Years ago, it would not have been far-fetched to state that the main supporters of capital punishment were political conservatives and evangelical Christians. These groups, generally stereotyped as white men and women of the middle to upper class, are more often than not, the same persons with decision-making power with regard to capital punishment, and thus also less likely to fall victim to it.

Nevertheless, times seem to be a-changing and generalizations may soon no longer apply.

Voices Crying Out: Comfort and Transformation in an Age of Mass Incarceration

Photo via maxriesgo /

This reading of Isaiah 40 may make it more difficult for many of us to relate to the ancient historical setting of the text. There are many among us, however, who are refugees, forced to migrate to find economic opportunity or even because of poor decisions or systemic injustice that forces a disproportionate amount of our minority population into the prison system. Bereft of personal and economic freedom, our nation’s prison population might find both hope and justice in these words from the ancient prophetic text.

There is no doubt that many in our nation’s prison have committed crimes, just as the ancient people of Judah did according to Isaiah 1. There is also no doubt that we need a system of incarceration that separates dangerous criminals from potential victims. But the words concerning disproportionate judgment also call us to question the fairness of our current system in the United States, which boasts the largest prison population in the world at 2.2 million.

Moreover, just as God did not give up on the people of Judah, God has not given up on those in the prison system. What would happen if we as Christians partnered with God to help transform lives and offer hope to the women and men who fill our prisons?

Justice Roberts Asks If The Case of The Muslim Prisoner’s Beard Is Too Easy

John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States of America. Photo courtesy of Steve Petteway via Wikimedia Commons/RNS.

In some ways, the case of the Muslim prisoner who wants to grow a beard seems easy.  When it comes to a prisoner’s religious rights, federal laws favors accommodation when possible.

So how could Gregory Holt — known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad after his conversion to Islam — possibly lose at the Supreme Court, where the justices heard his case on Oct. 7?

Holt wants to grow a mere half-inch beard — a length of whisker allowed in the vast majority of state prison systems, but not the one where he is incarcerated: Arkansas.

Even Chief Justice John Roberts wondered how such a seemingly straightforward case came before the high court, which usually occupies itself with the thorniest of legal questions.

The Biblical Case Against the Death Penalty, From a Former Supporter

Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET /

Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET /

“Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

I despise labels, but I guess you can’t get away from them. For example, I am called an American (a label). I would prefer to be called a United States Citizen because the term “American” is ethnocentristicThe term should mean I am part of the American continents, but it is never used that way. “American” is almost always used to refer to a person who lives in the United States. However, Canadians and Mexicans are also Americans; and so are Hondurans and Brazilians.

I wish I could simply be called “Christian.” But that label necessitates the need for additional labels. Am I Protestant or Catholic? Am I orthodox or neo-orthodox? Am I a fundamentalist, an evangelical, or main-line? Am I emergent, traditional, liberal, progressive, or contemporary? To which denomination do I belong, or am I non-denominational? Maybe I am inter-denominational? Am I charismatic or cessastionist?

It’s maddening!

My preference would be to be called a follower of Jesus. But what does that mean?

Then there are political labels … and they are the worst!

Am I conservative or liberal? Am I a Republican or Democrat or Independent or Libertarian or something else? Am I pro-life or pro-choice? Am I a patriot or and antagonizer? Am I a capitalist, socialist, or communist? Where do I stand on gun rights? What about human rights, or same-sex marriage, or LBGT issues, or immigration, or Obamacare, etc., etc., etc … blah, blah, blah …

Why can’t I just be me?

It’s a lost cause. No matter how hard I try not to be boxed in, people label me. So, let me give you my best shot at who I am based on labels. (Of course, if your definition of the labels is not the same as my definition, then we will have a hard time communicating.) Here goes:

Supreme Court Rejects Asylum Bid for German Home-schooling Family

The Romeike family studies around a table at home. Photo courtesy Home School Legal Defense Association. Via RNS

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal from a family seeking asylum in the United States because home schooling is not allowed in their native Germany.

The case involves Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, Christians who believe German schools would have a bad influence on their six children. The family’s case became a rallying point for many American Christians.

As is their custom, the justices on the high court declined to give a reason for not hearing the case.

Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association that represents the family, said the group would pursue legislation in Congress to allow the family to stay. But the Romeikes will likely face deportation.