Not long ago I received a letter from a friend of mine. For almost a decade he has been serving out a sentence in a Texas prison. No need to get into the details of his case, but his comments to me about criminal justice and the poor need to be read by a wider audience. For the record, he did not grow up in poverty. To the contrary, his background is upper middle-class.
I will let him speak for himself:
". . .most people of my race, education, professional background, etc. would never be sent to prison for a first time offense. One would be offered probation and a treatment program.
"On the other hand, those who are poor, uneducated and from a different ethnic background are more likely to be quickly sent to prison. A public defender with an unmanageable case load is appointed and he/she will work with the DA for some sort of plea agreement. More than likely, they will do some time.
"Trust me, in many cases its the worst thing that can happen for both the short and the long term.
"So many of my friends here come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. Many have drug use in their backgrounds. . .most come from families that are so systemically dysfunctional that it's a wonder that they are even alive.
"This environment is not a helpful or healthy thing for most. While there are rehab opportunities, they are few and far between. I did 8 years before I was even eligible for the program that I just completed. I had to be within 2 years of my discharge date or be given a parole date to be considered.
"Unfortunately, this is a place where deviant thought and behavior is reinforced. Unless someone is self-directed and will rigorously pursue every avenue for education and rehabilitation, their chance to come back to this place is increased by leaps and bounds.
"It is also my conclusion that without a faith-based component as a part of the equation, the recidivism rate will continue to increase.
". . . .While prison is a needed option for some, many could (and should) be spared this environment if other services were in place. What we're doing doesn't seem to work all that well. . .there has to be a better way."
Texas prisons are failing us all. Texas prisons cost too much. Texas prisons and the entire criminal justice system discriminate against the poor. Thousands of Texas prison beds should be replaced by treatment slots and centers.
Everyone would be better. Our society can be more just.
The Messiness of Ministry
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