Two groups of preteens gaze up at their teachers. They’d all been asked exactly the same question, but each group responded with answers that were exactly opposite. Both sets of kids live in Chicago, yet they are from contrasting parts of our divided city and attend extremely different schools.
So, this mysterious question; what could it possibly be?
“How many children here, personally know someone who is or has been in prison?”
This simple question, (excluding the rich and famous prisoners we see on TV; like Martha Stewart, OJ Simpson and Rod Blagojevich), triggers an avalanche of implications and inconsistencies! In one classroom, every single child personally knows someone who is or has been incarcerated, while across town, in an entirely different classroom, not one single child knows someone who is or has been in prison.
Think about this: Have you ever thought about all the implications of living in a city or nation that exists with such stark contrasts or inconsistencies?
We see before us, two groups of 12 year old’s, maturing and growing older with entirely different worldviews. This modern reality deeply saddens me. Even though these kids live in the same country, are governed by the same president, controlled by the same US Constitution, should submit to the same laws and pursue the same great ideals of democracy, freedom and happiness, these same kids live in entirely different worlds. It doesn’t matter what side of the tracks they were born on, each one of these children is unique, each one of them is precious, each and every one was made in the image of God, each and every one of these children deserve equal and just respect!
Imagine what goes on in these young minds. I can’t help but think of myself as a 12 year old boy, I personally didn’t know anyone who was locked up, so my natural response, (back in the day), was to see prisoners as the dregs of society and dangerous thugs. TV, movies and video games did nothing to negate that mindset, as they also portrayed them as hyped up threats to society or urban terrorists, instilling fear into my own naivety. My young mind said “it’s a black and white world of good and bad, the good guys catch the bad guys and throw them into jail; keeping us, the good people, safe and secure.”
Is it really that plain and simple?
Is it really that black and white?
Across town, where luxury vanishes like a mist, poverty grasps all within it’s scope and day-to-day survival screams out of the tears of the majority; prisoners are seen and portrayed in an entirely different light. Felons and prisoners are people they personally know; they aren’t mysterious homicidal maniacs, but their neighbors! They are their fathers, brothers, uncles, mothers, sisters, friends or grandparents! To the people grieving over these prisoners, they happen to be dearly beloved folk, sadly trapped, chained and locked up in cages, miles upon miles away from their homes and families.
I cannot fathom how these stark contrasts can bring about a positive outcome. Fear, ostracizing and isolation dominates one side! The other side openly embraces, loves and waits longingly for their beloved ones to return home. On one side, the prisoner is the feared “criminal” or a “plague that must dodged at all costs”, while across the tracks, that same person is simply seen as someone who “caught a case” or is “sick”, and in need of a help.
About 1 out of every 100 people in the USA are incarcerated today; a rate far greater than any other country in the world. When we add parole and probation onto that statistic, it becomes even more alarming, because over 7.3 million (2 out of every 31 adults) of our population are under the control of either the City, State or Federal Department of Corrections. To calculate these sums even further, and as we wander into predominantly black or Hispanic poverty stricken neighborhoods, those statistics reveal even more horrifying numbers; numbers that should make us all weep; heartbreaking figures like 1 in 7, 1 in 9 and 1 in 3 for certain age groups, genders and colors.
Think about how it must feel for a young boy growing up on Chicago’s West Side. As they mature, they know there’s a huge probability and possibility of winding up “downstate”! Yet, if that youngster travels east into the affluent Goldcoast area, the young guys living there don’t even know that the phrase “downstate” symbolizes all the prisons located south of Chicago.
Think about all the differences of opinions about prison. I look at the children living in our homeless shelter; incarceration isn’t a foreign concept to them. They have constantly seen people, (teenagers, men and women they personally know), rotating in and out of jail for predominantly victimless non-violent crimes. The people, these kids see disappear, whether for hours, months or years, are often good kind-hearted generous folk, who got “caught up” or made some stupid decisions. They may have only urinated in an alley, drunk alcohol on the street, smoked a blunt (marijuana), jumped over a CTA turnstile without paying, sold squares (cigarettes), carried a crack-pipe or possessed 16 nickel bags; any one of these activities, (with a host of others), can land a person the deep humiliation of being frisked, cuffed, thrown into the back of a squad car and finally caged like an animal. These people aren’t murderers or rapists or child molesters, they aren’t folk our children need to dodge, they’re just doing what many other people are doing; anywhere and everywhere, throughout this land and throughout the world.
With all this in mind, and knowing that drugs are used and sold fairly equally throughout every section, every race and every social status of society, I find myself appalled that it depends on which side of the track you’re born on, as to whether the rotating doors of jails and prisons are opened to you! These days, mass incarceration unfortunately has more to do with “who you are”, than “what crime you did”. What is also alarming, is knowing that marijuana statistics actually slightly point in one direction; affluent white college kids are more likely to buy and sell marijuana than any other section of society, yet they rarely see the hard cold walls of a jail cell. Combine this knowledge with the reality that marijuana sends more people to prison than any other illegal drug, and you’ll see why the inequality and injustice of our modern day “war on drugs” infuriates me. Once that door of incarceration is opened, the horrifying reality of recidivism keeps him or her under it’s powerful grasp. Once again, our young children in poverty stricken communities, see their fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins sent downstate for simply peeing dirty in a cup, missing an appointment or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, chilling with the wrong people. They didn’t “catch another case”, they simply violated their parole or probation as victimless non-violent offenders.
And the wheels of this vicious merciless cycle keep on turning, round and round, round and round, round and round…
These kids don’t grow up fearing our so-called criminals, they end up fearing the system, the police, the authorities, the politicians and the “way it is”! They have absolutely no reason to fear the majority of men and women chained and locked in cells, yet they have big reasons to tremor over uniformed thugs forcibly entering their homes, armed with killing machines, and taking their daddy, brother or Aunty captive. They have every reason to fear the “blue and white” pulling them over and forcing them to lie face down in the dirt, cuffing their hands behind their backs, as they search for “something”; whatever that “something” may be!
I beg you…..
These 12 year old kids sit in their classrooms, each one of them gazing at the authority figure poised at the front. One boy dreams of Harvard, as another hopes there’s food on her table when she gets home. One girl gets tucked into bed every night by both her parents, as another weeps every night, wishing his daddy would return home from prison to say goodnight to him. In one classroom, the majority of the children will graduate and attend college, while across this great city, in the other classroom, prison is more likely going to be their reality! It is important to note that the contrasting realities of hope and despair aren’t based on intelligence or criminality, they’re based on the contrasting realities of poverty, race and affluence.
Now, I know there will be some who say; “its up to these kids to break the depressing cycle, all they need to do is just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and live the American dream!” To this, I respond by saying, “if they don’t have bootstraps, or even boots, how can they pull themselves up?” A harsh reality remains and many people don’t want to admit it; the American dream is a very contrasting dream and experience to these 2 groups of preteens!
I acknowledge my own blessings, combined with my own privilege; I am a white male, born into a good Christian family, with loving parents; we always had enough wealth to be comfortable, go on vacations and eat food every day. We never had to deal with any devastating illnesses (physical or mental) or addictions that can rock a family’s world and send them into a downward spiral. We never had the police randomly pull us over to search every inch of our car, as we sat on the side of the road, looking helplessly at the dirt. We lived, basically unharassed and untainted, so we could reach and grasp for the ideals of a living wage, housing and freedom! We lived with these privileges and rights, but there are so many, far too many, who’ve had these basic human rights stolen from them, so all their efforts and dreams are being consumed by their simple desire just to survive!
As I wander over to the shelter every day, I witness these contrasting realities. I witness the permanent affects of incarceration on generation after generation. I witness men and women still unable to get jobs and housing, twenty years after committing victimless non-violent drug felonies. I witness people rotating in and out of facilities because of parole violations, seemingly unable to escape. I witness the devastating effects on children, as they watch their loved ones disappear. I witness and I cringe, because I know two basic things; these experiences are very traumatic for both the “captured one” and the loved ones who surround them, and these men and women are normally suffering because of victimless non-violent crimes, things many of us are also guilty of!
There are a ton of things I could elaborate on, as the injustices and effects on our population are plentiful, and each State varies with it’s repercussions…
Let’s look at one aspect, it’s election time, so let’s look at voting; prisoners can’t vote in most states, people on parole or probation can’t vote in some states, while there are a small number of states, (like Florida), where anyone who is an ex-felon is ineligible to vote. Let me remind us that this piece is more about the enormous amount of non-violent offenders, than the occasional homicidial psychopaths or sexual predators that sporadically enter our lives and terrify our neighborhoods. This is about how mass incarceration has affected all our lives in many different ways. You may think this doesn’t affect you, but I challenge you to think about the 2000 presidential election. As the Country waited for Florida, there was over a million people from that state who were deemed unable to vote that year because of they were in prison, on parole, probation or had once committed a felony; now think about those consequences and how mass incarceration affected an election!
Unfortunately, I wish I had all the answers and could wave a magic wand, putting right the wrongs and ending all prejudices, but I can’t. They are too entrenched and too deep! Mass incarceration is profitable and here to stay for the long haul.
Fortunately, and despite all the negative jive I just sprayed onto this page, I do see hope. I see it rising from the ground; from the bottom on up, grassroots movements and radical individuals fighting against the prison industrial system, screaming for change. I see people questioning the whole “justice system”, looking out for the “least of these”, instead of their bulging pockets. I see hope!
I believe Christians need to rise up and also resist. We need to bring hope into the despair. We need to bring a culture of restorative justice into our culture of retribution, violence and revenge! We need to bring love and forgiveness into the hatred and harshness.
Jesus gives us the way! In his parable of the “sheep and the goats”, he tells us that he’s also the prisoner, imploring us to be sheep and visit him. He tells us that visiting “sheep”, not the ignoring “goats”, are the ones who’ll enter into his eternal rest. As I’ve tried to explain, the modern day American prisoner’s captivity, doesn’t end while caged and chained. It continues to their grave, and they’re needing our visitation and love, our acceptance and forgiveness, our unbiased eyes and our listening ears. Jesus knew the harsh rugged plight of the prisoner, combined with the unjust bias of politics and money, and that is why he implored his followers to be sheep and visit the “least of these” in prison.
This isn’t an easy feat, and Jesus knew that also. Isolation, ostracization, discrimination and degradation will still rule the prisoner’s environment, but he calls us to go against the flow and embrace our fellow captured human beings, giving them hope. Our flickers of love, visitation and forgiveness can start a fire, by changing our culture of fear into something new. I think that’s why he made it his final word and the climax of the 6 things he mentioned in this parable.
We must remember that visiting prisoners was vitally essential to our Lord, and therefore, it needs to be vitally important to us also, giving hope where there seems to be none! Give hope to the children of the incarcerated masses!