Prison

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.

A New Hymn for Lamenting the Death Penalty for Christ the King

Jesus on the cross Photo: Lasalus/Shutterstock
Jesus on the cross Photo: Lasalus/Shutterstock

“Lord, when were you in prison?” we’ll ask of you one day;
And when did we go visit you, and listen well, and pray?
And when did we show mercy there (as we need mercy, too)?
As we love those in prison, Lord, we show our love to you!
 

When you taught love of neighbor, had you heard in your time
Of one who lay beside the road, a victim of a crime?
The neighbor that you said was good brought help and wholeness, too;
May we help those who hurt so much from crimes that others do.
  

New & Noteworthy

Still Shining
David Hilfiker is a retired inner-city physician and writer on poverty and politics who has Alzheimer’s. He writes about his experience, with the hope of helping “dispel some of the fear and embarrassment” that surrounds this disease, on his blog “Watching the Lights Go Out.” www.davidhilfiker.blogspot.com

Transported
Laura Mvula is a British, classically trained musician, songwriter, and former choir director whose debut album,Sing to the Moon,is a lush fusion of soul, jazz, gospel, and pop. While not overtly “about” faith, her arrangements are imbued with spiritual longing and visions of beauty. Columbia

Engineered Grief
High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing, compiled and edited by Audrey Petty, is the latest oral history collection from the Voice of Witness imprint of McSweeney’s Books. Those most affected tell of the toll exacted by poverty and misguided housing policies. voiceofwitness.org

Stages of Change
Just out on digital release, the documentary Walk with Me follows three women artists and activists who take theater to prisons, community centers, and schools. It is a celebration of art as a means of creative social change and lifting human dignity. www.walkwithmethemovie.com

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Education as an Exercise in Dominion

Two schoolchildren wait for the bus, Nolte Lourens / Shutterstock.com
Two schoolchildren wait for the bus, Nolte Lourens / Shutterstock.com

I remember the first time I ever got straight A’s. It was also the last time.

I was in Mrs. Becker’s 4th grade class at John Story Jenks School in Philadelphia. I was always good at reading, I LOVED science projects, and art class was fun — but math? Ugh. Math was my nemesis. In 4thgrade the times tables felt as insurmountable as that dang rope everybody else could whiz up and down in gym class. I just couldn’t figure it out. In fact, to this day, I haven’t figured the rope.

So, my father became my times tables drill sergeant and resorted to straight memorization tactics, making me write each one 10 times. Then he sat across from me at the dining room table and drilled me on the times tables until I said them in my sleep. It was brutal … and oddly, one of the fondest memories of my elementary school years. Not only did I master multiplication, but I also learned something much more important. When my report card came back that quarter with straight A’s, I learned that I could learn!

When We Are More Interested in Evangelical Infighting Than Serious Issues of Justice

Image: Handcuffs and stethoscope, Kuzma / Shutterstock.com
Image: Handcuffs and stethoscope, Kuzma / Shutterstock.com

My dad used to tell a joke from the pulpit, back when “damn” was a much stronger word in evangelical/fundamentalist circles than it is now.

It went roughly like this:

“Millions of people die every day from preventable causes without ever having heard about Jesus’ love, and most of you don’t give a damn, and most of you are probably more worried about the fact that I said ‘damn’ than about the fact that millions of people die daily from preventable causes without ever having heard about Jesus’ love.”

I have a new post up at her.meneuticsChristianity Today’s women’s blog that, quite frankly, I don’t expect too many people to read.

It’s about how it’s perfectly legal in most states to shackle pregnant women while they are in labor.

Gaza: The Persistent Paradox

IN "SILENCE FOR GAZA,” Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish captures the contradictions of the coastal enclave, describing it alternately as “ugly, impoverished, miserable,” and “the most beautiful, the purest and richest among us.” Darwish’s antonyms evoke Gaza’s crushing conditions and resilient residents, exemplars of sumud, an Arabic word roughly translated as “steadfast perseverance”—a fundamental form of Palestinian resistance. Darwish’s poem also states that Gaza “did not believe that it was material for media. It did not prepare for cameras and did not put smiling paste on its face.” And yet every person, every story, every image of Gaza illustrates this persistent paradox of a land at once ugly and beautiful.

“I DON’T KNOW why they targeted us. No rockets were fired from our neighborhood,” says citrus farmer Yusuf Jilal Arafat, whose 5-year-old daughter Runan was killed when Israeli warplanes bombed their home. Arafat’s wife, four months pregnant, and their 8-year-old son were found alive in the rubble. His surviving children now suffer from frequent panic attacks at night. Many of Arafat’s trees were destroyed by the bombs, and the ground is covered with oranges now in various stages of decay. Rumors of contamination by Israeli weapons may hurt the sales of his crop, but he will still harvest. The family is living with Arafat’s father-in-law until they can rebuild.

Rebuilding under Israeli import restrictions is no simple task, so salvaging existing materials remains a vital practice—albeit risky, according to structural engineers. But ingenuity-by-necessity is constantly on display in Gaza, whether it’s recovering crushed stone from beneath ruined highways, straightening steel rebar from bombed-out buildings, or pulverizing concrete for reuse in new (but weaker) blocks.

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Untying the Hands of Justice

THE UNITED STATES has more than 2.3 million prisoners, a higher number than any other country. How did we become the world’s leading jailer? One of the main culprits: Mandatory sentences.

Visiting those in prison and giving Christmas gifts to children of incarcerated parents are only two steps toward fulfilling Jesus’ command to care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25). It’s time for the church to get serious about criminal sentencing reform—particularly, the reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which lock up so many people for so long with so little benefit to society.

The explosion in state and federal prison populations and costs began in the 1980s with the so-called war on drugs. Lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences passed by lawmakers are the primary weapon in that “war.” Judges have no choice but to apply these automatic, non-negotiable sentences of five, 10, or 20 years or even life in prison without parole. Whether the punishment actually fits the crime or the offender, protects the public, or leads to rehabilitation is irrelevant.

The results are unsurprising: irrational sentences, $80 billion annually in prison costs, and horrifically overcrowded prisons. States as varied as Georgia, New York, Delaware, South Carolina, California, and Michigan have confronted the reality of unsustainable prison budgets by repealing mandatory minimum sentences or creating “safety valve” exceptions that let judges go below the mandated punishment if the facts and circumstances warrant it. During this wave of reforms, crime has dropped to historic lows.

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AUDIO: A New Way of Life and the New Underground Railroad

Susan Burton and A New Way of Life Reentry Project have caught the attention of Michelle Alexander, acclaimed author The New Jim Crow, the best-selling study of the U.S. system of mass incarceration. Alexander points to Susan Burton's reentry program as a model for the kind of bold initiative needed to build what she calls a "new underground railroad"—a network of families, faith communities, and organizations dedicated to providing desperately needed support and love to people at risk of incarceration, families with loved ones behind bars, and people returning home from prison.

This radio documentary weaves together the voices of Susan Burton, Michelle Alexander, and five residents of A New Way of Life. The story shows the human face of those our society stigmatizes as "criminals," "felons," and "offenders," and sheds light on the tremendous hurdles they face upon release from prison, including the most basic and fundamental tasks of securing housing, work, and sobriety. The show, featuring interviews and ambient audio, was recorded on site at A New Way of Life Reentry Project by Chris Moore-Backman, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

 

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VIDEO: Beyond Bars

I first learned about Susan Burton when I watched her receive an award as one of CNN’s top 10 heroes. Burton, a former drug addict who served prison time, captivated me by the way she never allowed her past to define her. As the founder of a New Way of Life Reentry Project, Burton continues to provide housing and support for more than 500 formerly incarcerated women in south Los Angeles.

Learn more about this extraordinary woman in Sojourners magazine.

Burton remains committed to supporting programs that help formerly incarcerated women break the cycle of repeat imprisonment. Beyond Bars—a project that Burton advises—seeks to curb mass incarceration in the U.S., a problem fueled by for-profit prisons and institutionalized racism.

Beyond Bars produced the following video to help put a face to the problem. After watching it, ask yourself whether mass incarceration serves the common good.

And ask yourself whether you believe in second chances. As a broken follower of God, I know I sure do.

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