Sometimes the greatest tragedies are hidden in plain sight.
When we think of common problems ailing the American public, we think about poverty, broken families, and the uncertainty of the upcoming elections. I know I rarely think about the crisis that is affecting more families than we can imagine. What is this blight that is slowly but surely destroying families around the nation?
It has a sterile, distancing title, but perilous nonetheless: mass incarceration.
Despite the fact that the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, we hold 25% of the world’s prison population. The widespread outbreak in mass incarceration especially affects the United States minority population, in that 1 in 3 black men and 1 in 6 Latino men will serve time behind bars in the US. Prison has been described as the “new college” for many children, meaning that after high school they are more likely go to jail than to college. The U.S. is currently experiencing the highest levels of incarceration that our nation has ever experienced. However, this epidemic seems to rarely be addressed.
Father Daniel Berrigan once stated that, “Writing about prisoners is a little bit like writing about the dead.” This quote points to our unwillingness to ask the hard questions in regards to mass incarceration. But with an issue that affects over two million people, it’s time to ask the hard questions.
To begin with, why is mass incarceration so prevalent in the U.S.? There are a variety of explanations, mostly surrounding long standing policies and the jockeying of politicians using “tough on crime” vernacular to secure reelection. In addition to these theories, mandatory minimum sentencing laws do not assist the current predicament either, as they allow for little to no room for judicial discretion in sentencing.
And while these reasons for the exponential growth of mass incarceration are explored, there is something missing from our conversations about criminal justice reform: privatized prisons. The recent process of privatizing state and federal prisons feeds into the rampancy of mass incarceration in a way most completely disregard.
From 1999-2009, the private prison industry grew by 1600% and as of 2010, private prisons house 128,195 state and federal prisoners. Privatized prisons rake in profits of upwards of $8 billion dollars per year, making them an extremely lucrative business. These private prisons have come into existence as a means to reduce the federal deficit, creating a most sickening form of supply and demand in the form of cyclical incarceration. The very idea of a private prison means that in order for them to function, they must keep the beds filled to stay in business. The motivation for operation for these these privatized prisons is purely profit, not for the rehabilitation of its inhabitants. Due to the supply and demand structure created by private prisons, we should not expect for the U.S. incarceration rates to decrease, but only to increase in the future.
Additionally, inmates housed in privatized prisons often do not receive adequate healthcare and do not posses the ability to bring lawsuits against the private prison companies in the event of abuse. Living conditions in private prisons have often been described as “atrocious” and “deliberately indifferent to the physical well being of prisoners.” Oftentimes private prison guards are not adequately trained or equipped to serve as prison wardens, leading to increased safety risks for those incarcerated in private prisons.
In order to decrease the number of men and women we send to prison each year, one of the first steps must be closing privatized prisons. While at first glance they seem like a smart alternative to an already massive federal deficit, legislators need to reconsider the outcomes of the privatized prison culture. They are not serving justice, but rather stand as factories for recidivism.
But what, if anything, can Christian twenty and thirty somethings concerned about justice do to begin to reverse this trend?
The first step is to recognize the humanity of the U.S. prison population. I believe Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said it best: “When the prison doors slam shut, the prisoners do not lose their human quality.” As someone who is deeply passionate about justice, I have found it difficult at times to have compassion for prisoners. That is until I took the time to look deeper into the common life themes for the U.S. prisoner. I had to look beyond the statistics and into the story. We must judge a person solely on the crime committed, but instead must look deeper into facets of family history, systemic injustices,and the flaws in the U.S. legislature that may be facilitating the very crimes we desire to avoid.
Yes, while criminals have committed crimes that they are due punishment for, our end goal should be that of rehabilitation and restoration. Mass incarceration is a large scale problem that our country quite literally cannot afford to turn a blind eye to. Instead of privatized prisons, we should be using this funding to invest in the quality of education and health of the family. Instead of slapping on mandatory minimums, we should afford fair and speedy trials that are an integral part of being an American citizen. Instead of patching our broken criminal justice system with bandaids, we need to examine the structure as a whole with the end goal of restoration, not recidivism.
As a Christian, my call to concern for the imprisoned goes beyond general inclination towards justice or the fact that The Shawshank Redemption is my favorite movie.
The book of Hebrews outlines a clear call in Hebrews 13:3 that we are to “continue to remember those who are in prison as if you together were with them in prison.” While prison ministry may not be what floods our Instagram feeds, it’s important for us to pray for the imprisoned and seek ways to get involved in our local communities. Depending on your hometown, there are a variety of ways to love those behind bars and their families as well.For me, it looked like tutoring children with one or more incarcerated parent. It might look different for you, but matters nonetheless.
Dr. Vincent Bacote, professor of theology from Wheaton College, believes that in regards to prison ministry, “the church has a tremendous opportunity to consider Matthew 25 and consider ways to have a transformative public witness by a commitment to care for prisoners, even those behind bars for life. This can happen by considering ways to offer education and training for various skills to those in prison as well as ways to help those who return from prison to stay on a path a rehabilitation.”
I pray that you will find ways in your community to love the incarcerated and their families. Let’s seek to remember the poor.” (Galatians 2:10) After all, we are all enslaved to something in our lives. Whether we are physically behind bars or not, our hearts chase after the things of this world which so easily entangle. Let us turn our hearts toward the Father and seek to imitate his heart for the incarcerated.
Let us live as though we believe the truth that the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon us, “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”
-Morgan Barney is sophomore Maclellan Scholar at Covenant College, currently studying International Studies. She co-founded Save Our Sisters, an organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking in Moldova, and advocates for women trapped in sex slavery.