Jim Crow Again: Lessons for Fighting this Giant

Photo via sakhorn /

Photo via sakhorn /

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.

Getting to Work

1. Awakening: It is impossible to build a transformative movement for justice if people remain in the dark about the magnitude of the crisis at hand, its origins, and its racial, economic, and political dimensions. I wrote The New Jim Crowbecause I strongly suspected that most people simply had no idea what was really going on and that education was a necessary prerequisite to effective action. I still believe that’s the case, and so urging people of faith and conscience to commit themselves to raising the consciousness of their congregations and communities is extremely important.

Encourage people to hold study groups, film screenings, public forums, and dialogues to help others awaken to what has happened on our watch and become motivated to join the movement. The Unitarian Universalists, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Veterans of Hope, and PICO are all engaged in consciousness-raising work and have created study guides based on The New Jim Crow and other resources.

2. Building an Underground Railroad: Obviously, consciousness-raising is not enough—we will have to get to work. In my view, that necessarily involves building an “underground railroad” for people trying to make a break for true freedom in the era of mass incarceration and who desperately need help finding shelter, food, work, and reunification with their families.

This is work that every congregation and faith organization can undertake; many already are. The important thing is for people to frame and understand this work as part of a larger effort to end mass incarceration, and to view those who are being helped not as merely recipients of charity but as equals and potential partners in this work.

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Alabama Needs to Put People Before Profits

Photo illustration, Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Photo illustration, Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

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.

Corrections for Profit

Prison bars,  rook76 /

Prison bars, rook76 /

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.

Chaplains Say More Prisoners Switching Religions

Prisoner clutch Bible, Steven Frame,

Prisoner clutch Bible, Steven Frame,

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.

Egypt's Power Vacuum

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.