I have never been inside an adult jail or prison. I visited a juvenile correctional facility once as part of an educational tour for social workers and community advocates, but only for lunch.
I have known two people who were jailed briefly. One, my first husband, who shared a cell with activist David Harris for participating in the Stop the Draft Protest during the Vietnam War.
The other was one of my brothers, the one who went to Harvard, who was arrested along with his apartment mates for some serious drug possession.
He hadn’t been “the one,” so he was released in 24 hours.
Not surprising that his role in a drug bust was resolved so quickly, barely time for him to even have a story to tell. My brother, while at the time long-haired and living in a place and a climate where young men who looked like him were not the particular favorites of the local sheriffs and police officers, nonetheless was white, educated, and had parents who could pay for a lawyer and for bail, if that became necessary.
He, very simply and perhaps unfairly spoken, did not fit the profile. The profile of the kind of young man who not only gets arrested, but gets convicted of a non-violent drug offense.
He wasn’t a minority. He hadn’t already gotten in trouble in school, where he might have already been tagged as a felon waiting to happen, a little thug. He hadn’t already had some things on his juvenile record, some petty theft, some altercation or another.
He had parents who could rescue him, quite frankly, and a college education to complete.
His history in the criminal justice system was one long day and night in the Alameda County jail.
He went on with his college education, got his PhD, married, and is raising children, who have had him present as a father their entire childhood.
So, for my brother, this jail time is just a story that is told, mostly as amusement, and sometimes, rarely, as a warning to his own two boys as they enter adolescence and young manhood, that time when being a male in this culture does tip the scales toward more likelihood of arrest.
Not so, for the fathers and boyfriends and husbands and sons of the black women I have known and worked with over the years. The women who have been homeless. The women who have been in transitional housing. The women who have come to the health clinics I have worked in.
The women I have met at soup kitchen ministries. The women I have met in the welfare reform movement, or in anti-hunger coalitions. The ones I have come to know and love well in small groups. The ones I have known as friends.
There has been, more often than not, an anecdote about a daddy who was jailed for drinking or drugs or both, or for selling marijuana or small amounts of crack cocaine. Maybe even some violent crime, but usually after developing a rap sheet of lesser offenses. Not making bail. Not having a private attorney. Being in the wrong neighborhood in the wrong country at the wrong time.
Being young, being male, being black.
“Daddy went up when I was a baby.” “My husband got arrested again five years ago. I can only see him a couple times a year.” “My children’s daddy got too much street time.”
“My son got messed up in school, dropped out when he could. Wrong neighborhood. Bad time.”
I used to wonder self-righteously where their parents were, especially their mamas.
Where was his mama when he was drifting away?
Women left behind with babies to raise, with debts, with rage. That’s who I know, the ones who can’t ever know if and when their boys and men will be released, when the money will ever come again, given that a convicted black man isn’t high on the employment list.
One of my friends, a good and longtime friend, is essentially a single mother. Her husband shows up once in a while from his irregular trucking job in Alabama, the best and only job he has managed to hold on to for the past few years. My friend, call her Brenda, when things were more stable, when there was a regular pay check and insurance, was able to track her son Stephen better. He was an active young child. I remember my own son chasing him around a yard to run out some of his energy. He eventually went on medication and she had him transferred to a smaller school clear across the county.
But the program ran out and he got to be middle-school age, so now he goes to a large rowdy school nearer to their marginal neighborhood. Brenda has developed diabetes and bad knees so she doesn’t move around much, once she’s finished working her low-wage receptionist job for a local chiropractor, and she tries to not use her ailing, aging car, because it might give out and besides the gas is too expensive.
So she sits in a dark house watching whatever there is on television, while Stephen comes straight home from school most days and then hangs out with the older boys on the block.
One or two of these boys have already been arrested for drug possession, or small-time pushing, or petty theft and sent to the famously broken down and dangerous juvenile facility. Stephen looks up to them, and to some of the boys in his school who will accept him — with his frayed clothing and small build. So far this year, he has brought home Ds and Fs, been suspended for fights, and been threatened with expulsion for writing, what the school officials have labeled, gang tagging on the bathroom walls.
He escaped expulsion, but is now on the list of possible/probable gang membership. If he gets caught for any crime, his punishment will more than likely be much stiffer than if he hadn’t hung out one afternoon and wielded a marker.
My friend Brenda has always gone to school meetings, always talked with his teachers, driven him cross town for a better chance to thrive. But Stephen, that smart and funny and lively boy I have known, is going over, going over fast. And I don’t feel hopeful.
I will not suppose that in this sanctuary this morning there are not individuals who have served jail time, or whose parent or grandparent, brother or cousin or high school friend, or husband has not been incarcerated. Or even mother, sister, aunt, or girl friend, as there has been a sharp increase in the number of women being arrested and jailed in the past decade, particularly in the areas of aggravated assault, embezzlement, and, again, drug abuse violations.
While the number of men in state and federal prisons has risen 84% over the past decade, the number of women has jumped 121%.
If you have had a loved one, or a not so loved one, or a neighbor, or acquaintance arrested or incarcerated, then you have more directly experienced the conditions that arise when so many people are charged, especially with non-violent crimes, and so many of them imprisoned in places that are overcrowded, unsanitary, mean-spirited, and with no means of rehabilitation or redemption.
According to the Federal Bureau of Justice statistics, the United States has the highest incarceration level in the world. Today more than two million people are doing time in America.
During the past 30 years, there has been a four-fold increase in the per-capita rate of imprisonment in this country. The “boom” caused by, among other factors, a dramatic toughening of the sentencing policies. Determinate sentencing. The abolition of parole boards. The three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws. A decrease in overall crimes, but an increase in drug-related arrests and convictions.
Add to the swelling ranks of the convicted, the cutbacks in spending on prison programs. New prisons continue to be built, but the services within them, the interventions like drug treatment, vocational training, and basic education, have been cut. Only six percent or so of the money spent on state penitentiaries goes toward rehabilitative prison programs.
So, once released, this massive number of inmates are, perhaps, in deeper trouble. Ex-offenders, as I said earlier, are mostly male, minority, and low income. They leave with their histories intact: with substance abuse problems, with unfinished educations, with little or no employment experience.
They go out of the prison doors with a little spending money and a bus pass. Often without any connections to the place they are dropped, with no social security card, no birth certificate, no identity at all. With pent up “gate fever,” which is extreme irritability and anxiety, ready to react rashly, even criminally, to the stresses of everyday life.
And likely to be incarcerated again, most often within six months of release.
Last summer at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, the young adult caucus eloquently and successfully lobbied for their proposed study/action issue — Criminal Justice and Prison Reform. Their issue was: How can Unitarian Universalists successfully advocate for reform of the criminal justice and prison systems, even as the prison industry expands to accommodate more people and becomes increasing inhumane and unjust?
They were especially moved by the fact that in 1999, the most recent statistics available to them at the time they first studied prison conditions, nearly 1.5 million youth had at least one incarcerated parent and many jurisdictions were, and are, choosing to try youth as adults.
These facts are what grabbed them, the devastating impact on children and young people, as well as the racial inequity in the families who are affected.
They saw this issue also as a human rights problem. Their resolution pointed out that, although some of the crimes for which criminals have been convicted include the most unconscionable acts, this does not serve as justification to deny prisoners basic human rights.
In some cases, the resolution points out, inmates are subjected to 14-hour work days and being shackled and beaten.
The overarching goal of American prisons, our young adults have proclaimed, should be restorative justice to help prepare violators of the fundamental moral code of our society for reentry into society. Not to exploit them for labor or treat them as objects for abuse.
As DNA technology has shown that some prisoners are, in fact, innocent, the resolution points out, we should demand wider use of such technologies to ensure that the innocent are not unjustly punished.
Why care? Because, our youngest members say that although many do not feel directly affected by the criminal justice and prison system’s practices, we are likely beneficiaries of services and goods produced through prison exploitation.
And bottom line, UUs have consistently stood up for the right of the oppressed and of workers, and we should not excuse ourselves from speaking out because of the stigma attached to the incarcerated. Indeed, we have as a body passed 10 earlier Social Witness Statements related to the criminal justice system, including one of the earliest as a merged denomination. In 1996 we passed a resolution supporting a Model Penal Code. Even earlier, Unitarians Margaret Fuller and Dorothea Dix toured mid-19th-century asylums and prisons, and found them, in Fuller’s own words “barbarous, the air in the upper galleries unendurable.” She and others proposed rehabilitation rather than punishment, and sought the causes for the crimes, all stressing a common theme. Again in Fuller’s words, that kind care begets good results.
Our youth and young adults see this as a new problem, a new issue to be addressed; while some of us older adults see it as updating our policy recommendations and statement of conscience given current circumstances.
I, for one, am grateful for their energy and their viewing of the wrongs in our system of criminal justice as something recent and vital. I am hopeful that they will help us to set aside our discouragements and allow us to see the moral world from their perspectives.
They ask us, as part of our faith tradition, our collective faith journey, our commitment against all evidence otherwise to the inherent worth and dignity and fair treatment of all individuals, to spend some time standing in solidarity with those imprisoned. To ask hard questions like, what can we do to help those already incarcerated? How can we advocate for wider recognition of the need to uphold human rights in the prison system?
How can sentencing guidelines be made equitable across race and class?
Do existing crime prevention programs work and who benefits from them?
They ask us more, in their eagerness and with their energy. Can we help support the families of incarcerated people, for example, creating programs to benefit their children?
Can we visit a local prison and write articles for the local media to inform the public on prison-related issues?
Can we advocate for respectful working conditions for inmates?
Can we walk a mile around a prison yard in their shoes?
March 1st is the deadline for congregations and individuals to give our UU Committee on Social Witness feedback on this study/action issue before a draft statement of conscience is drafted.
After more feedback and workshops at our General Assembly in Long Beach, California, this June, this draft will be mailed back to us, for further study and action, and presented at the General Assembly in Forth Worth, Texas, in 2005.
In this Black History Month, let us remember the shameful history of injustice against African-Americans in the penal system. As Civil Rights Veteran and longtime congressman John Lewis wrote recently, we, as a nation, and Georgia, as a leading perpetrator, are using incarceration, not just as a means to punish criminals, but as a way to debilitate the lives of young men and women in America.
We want to be tough on crime, no doubt, he wrote. But we cannot use incarceration as a pre-emptive strike against (these people), primarily African-American people, Hispanics, and other minorities, whom prosecutors label as future criminals.
How could a nation that stands for freedom and justice, he asks, engage in the mass incarceration of millions of its citizens?