Photo by Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.
Musings & Younger Perspectives:
Prisoners are Children of God
By Colin Cushman
Our prison system is broken. What was once intended to be a system of rehabilitation and reintegration has veered tragically from this ideal.
We have an addiction with jailing people. One out of every 100 American adults is currently in jail or prison.1 This demographic, however, is skewed in many ways. Take race, for example. In America, 50% of federal prisoners and 25% of state prisoners are there on drug charges.2 Now, sociologists have shown conclusively that White and Black rates of drug usage are roughly equal.3 Yet, people of color are routinely subjected to more intense police scrutiny, leading to higher rates of incarceration.
According to Human Rights Watch, “Blacks are 10.1 times more likely than Whites to enter prison for offenses.”4 Once they get there, Black men receive sentences 20% longer than White offenders charged for the same crime.5 The problem has gotten so bad and is so systemic that one in three Black men will go to prison in their lifetimes.6
Life in prison is even worse for sexual minorities, or LGBTQ. They face daily violence and discrimination for their sexuality.7 Transgender folks, especially, are repeatedly denied access to proper medicine and facilities to meet their needs.8 Stories of these folks’ experiences are heartbreaking.
Moreover, the recent trend of the privatization of prisons and prison services has dismantled any pretext of dignity for these inmates. Aramark, – a privately-owned prison food supplier – that has provided food below health standards, included a case where maggots were found in the food.9 Or, when Arizona switched to privatized healthcare, the fatalities while waiting for health services more than quadrupled.10
However, these are not merely accidental lapses in standards. These are for-profit companies, providing sub-human services while making obscene amounts of money. In one example, CCA, a major owner of private prisons, wooed investors by bragging about the high recidivism rates of their inmates.11
All this discussion begs the question: why is this a Christian issue? Why should we care?
On the most basic level, it is scriptural. Jesus, while separating the goats from the sheep, commends the righteous on having visited prisoners. Hebrews 13:3 implores us to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them.” Throughout the psalms and prophets, they picture God setting prisoners free.
Beyond scripture, however, there are theological reasons to care about (and for) prisoners. As Christians, we believe that every human being, by virtue of their “created-ness,” is a child of God. This is in sharp contrast with how prisoners are reduced to being an ID number while in incarceration. Rather, God gives them a new name and a new, true identity that cannot be taken away from them. We also believe that we must care for the most vulnerable in society; the peace and wholeness of ourselves, our community, and our whole world depend on us living together as a human family. Further, Jesus calls us to resist violence in the world.
Prison is fundamentally a violent institution. On the surface level, it is a dangerous place to be – but, even deeper, prisons are based on violence. They are based on depriving a human of agency, relying on intimidation to keep order, and imposing an authoritarian will upon someone else. These all are forms of violence that are fundamentally embedded in our prison system—and which Jesus calls us to resist.
So, what do we, as Christians, do? I by no means have many (nor the best) solutions. However, it seems to me that the Biblical thing to do is render these people visible. The prison system is invisible by design. It works by removing prisoners from the social gaze, encouraging us to forget that they really exist. This is why prisons are never located in heavily-populated (much less wealthy!) areas.
We are encouraged to think of these children of God only as numbers and abstractions. This is why passages in the Bible urge us to “remember” those in prison. Even more so, we are told we need to visit those in prison. Even John Wesley, our denomination’s incessantly-referenced founder, established as a core practice of his Methodists visiting those in prison. When we are genuinely in contact with prisoners, we can no longer think of them as numbers. We render them visible. We hear their stories. We help to restore to them their humanity that prisons have stripped from them. And, in doing so, we begin the process of healing ourselves and our culture that has been so damaged by this system.
and a member of Kent UMC in Washington State.
1 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011.
2 U.S. Department of Justice, Dec. 2013.
3 For the example of marijuana, see http://wapo.st/1peAJRx. For a brief overview of the results of a 2011 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as well as a link to the survey, see http://huff.to/1ryoNf2.
4 Human Rights Watch, 2008.
5 U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2013.
6 Bureau of Justice Statistics. Cited in “Compounded Disadvantage: Race, Incarceration, and Wage Growth,” Christopher J. Lyons and Becky Pettit, Social Problems, Vol. 58, No. 2 (May 2011).
7 For example, see http://bit.ly/1lcUZSz
8 For example, see http://bit.ly/1nzBqiJ
10 American Friends Services Committee, 2013.