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.
Living in poverty has always been a struggle, but in Alabama being poor could land you in prison. According to a recent story in The New York Times, Alabama resident Gina Ray was locked up for over a month because she couldn’t pay fees and fines related to minor traffic offenses. Speeding while poor shouldn’t land someone in jail. This punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
Why would such morally outrageous penalties be imposed for such minor violations? Because criminal justice has become big business. Private companies are making millions of dollars running prisons, administering probation systems, and providing health care to those living behind bars.
Jesus coupled himself with the least in society when he said: “I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:36 ESV). It’s no surprise: imprisonment was not unheard of for the early church. Paul penned many New Testament letters while he was in custody.
And Psalm 102 reminds us that God’s heart goes out to the interned. “From heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die.”
A concerning trend of late has been the growth of “for profit” prisons. Spearheaded by companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the goal is to relieve states of the job of running prisons. Almost half of American prisoners are currently held in privately run prisons.
Religious conversions are on the rise in American prisons, according to a recent national survey of chaplains by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
A majority of 730 chaplains surveyed say that inmates are switching religions a lot (26 percent) or some (51 percent, and the largest gains are Muslim (51 percent), Protestant (47 percent) and pagan or earth-based religions (34 percent).
But it is difficult to determine prisoners' motivations for converting, according to Cary Funk, senior researcher for the Pew Forum.
“Some of the switching may be short-lived,” Funk said, adding that it is unclear whether the conversions are based on authentic beliefs or access to certain privileges such as special food or religious holidays.
For an entire week now we've watched tens of thousands of Egyptians march demanding a change in government. The police force has collapsed. The army is out in force. Residents are policing their own neighborhoods. President Mubarak is weighing his options. And the West is wondering what will happen next.