Monday, April 06, 2009

A nation of prisioners

I'm a Christian.

For over 20 years I served in local churches as the senior minister--in other words, I stood before my congregations almost every week, opened the Bible and tried to have something say.

[Just an aside: I realized early on that there is a big difference between "having to say something" and "having something to say"!]

This weekly discipline meant that I spent many hours reading the Bible.

In all that time---over two decades--I don't remember ever speaking directly to the issue of prisons and prisoners. Oh, I'm sure I mentioned "the prisoners" in passing because Jesus and the Hebrew Bible had a good deal to say about those subjects. I think I didn't speak directly for at least two reasons. First, I didn't have anyone in prison who was close to me. Second, the suppose that I bought the notion that anyone who was in prison got what they deserved. Both very lame reasons not to speak.

Recently, I spoke to a large Dallas church. My text: Luke 4:14-30. In that reading we find these words taken from a much earlier writing in Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners. . . .

"Freedom to the prisoners," hmmm.

As I wrestled around with my preparation, it struck me that someone needs to challenge the way we "do prisons" in this nation. So, I spoke to alternatives to incarceration, especially for non-violent offenses related to drugs that are so common where I live. Many, if not most, sent to prison for drug offenses need something much different than prison time, that is if rehabilitation is truly the goal.

Prison is not the best place to "get well." And, when a person has served the time, they can seldom escape the crime when it comes to housing or employment.

Prison perfects the fine art of setting a person up to fail and to fail terribly.

Now, on the day after my sermonic excursion into the world of prisoners, one of my former parishioners sends me an essay by Glenn Loury ("A Nation of Jailers," in CATO Unbound, March 11, 2009).

Chew on these facts from Loury's analysis:

"At more than 700 per 100,000 residents, the U.S. incarceration rate was far greater than our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia, which each have a rate of about 500 per 100,000.) Other industrial societies, some of them with big crime problems of their own, were less punitive than we by an order of magnitude: the United States incarcerated at 6.2 times the rate of Canada, 7.8 times the rate of France, and 12.3 times the rate of Japan.

"The demographic profile of the inmate population has also been much discussed. In this, too, the U.S. is an international outlier. African Americans and Hispanics, who taken together are about one fourth of the population, account for about two thirds of state prison inmates. Roughly one third of state prisoners were locked up for committing violent offenses, with the remainder being property and drug offenders. Nine in ten are male, and most are impoverished. Inmates in state institutions average fewer than eleven years of schooling."

I witness on a daily basis what imprisonment does to our community, to our families and to our young men. My faith tells me that I need to become more concerned and involved at the policy level. There are better approaches than the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" strategy suggested several years ago by one leading candidate for Governor of Texas.

Read Loury's important essay here.




Anonymous said...

I am amazed at some of the stupid things we do to people with drug problems. A person can drink until they fall over, but let them be caught with some weed and off to prison we go. Remember, I am a conservative, but the way we do our prison system makes no sense. At some point we as a country need to take a collective step back and ask the question. "Has our approach to conducting a war on drugs worked?"


Anonymous said...

So what "alternative" methods do you think we should have rather than prisons?

Larry James said...

For starters, lots of people could do well with treatment for their drug dependency. Divert courts in which persons have an option of treatment, education and guidance work very well here in Dallas, cost a fraction of what prison costs and clearly results in a better human and community outcome. Our "lock 'em up and throw away the key" attitude in Texas is not sustainable from a human or community health perspective.

Steve said...

I remember about 25 years ago, working in high tech in Santa Barbara. About 1/2 of the technicians who worked for me had gotten enough DUI's that hey had to do Prison time, but were allowed to come to work each day, just do their "time" each night. This seems to bolster anon's point of the hypocrisy...even though they were engaged in an activity that KILS innocent people regularly, they were allowed to keep working. If they had possession ( not even under the influence of) of a drug when stopped, the outcome (or rather, their inability to come out) would have been strikingly different...

Larry, I also want to comment on your bible reading. It is happening to me also...where the Holy Spirit seems to be challenging me to take Jesus' words seriously. I have been studying the bible since my youth, and can compete with any seminarian in any -ology you choose, but only recently, as I have prayed that God would show us what "seek first the Kingdom" really meant, have I realized how far away from the words of Jesus we modern CHRISTIANS are. I also just "discovered" the reference to prisoners, for example.

I wonder if we are not being prompted to be ready for the final exam a la Matthew 2:31. Maybe it's coming soon!

You touched on it, but I really see it here in Guatemala, that the real victims of incarceration are the families: the mothers, the faithful wives, and the children, in that order. Couldn't we at least think about them when determining how to punish crime?

Couldn't we start taking Jesus at his word, if we decide to call ourselves his followers?

Here is a reward/fun question for those who made it to the end of my comment:

John the Baptist said "repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand"

What did he want the people to repent of?

(No guessing..exegete!)

Steve said...

typo patrol:

That was



Matthew 25:31

Amy Boone said...

This is a tough issue. Grant is in TN right now because our 19 year old nephew was killed in a car wreck early Sunday morning. He had been in and out of juvenile jail for 3-4 years and then in "big jail" for the past year. Got out two weeks ago, went right back into his old lifestyle and now he's gone. No words. No answers. Just sad.