The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our rate is 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents, or about 1.6 million prisoners according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That compares to around 100 prisoners per 100, 000 residents in comparable countries. We’re five times more likely to lock people up, often for nonviolence crimes, hence the epitaph “Lockdown America.”
It’s not just the numbers. Another huge part of the problem is the racial disparity between those who are incarcerated. In our white population, there are 380 prisoners for every 100,000 people. Among Hispanics, its 966 prisoners for every 100,000 people, and among blacks its 2,207 prisoners for every 100,000 people. That’s why our prison labor system is sometime referred to as the new Jim Crow.
I used to take groups of students to participate in a three-day, inmate-led training program called Alternatives to Violence at the Graterford maximum security prison near Philadelphia. The program included role plays and discussions designed to help us understand the causes of violence, to learn how to communicate better, how to respond nonviolently to potentially violent situations, and how to build community. It was always hard to say goodbye at the end of the training. Inmates hung around talking until the guards became adamant that we need to break it up.
No one was diabolical enough to design our prison system. It’s the culmination of broken neighborhoods, broken homes, broken school systems, drugs, tough-on-crime politicians, and our collective fears. Our modern prison system actually grew out of efforts to reform ancient justice practices based on revenge and corporal punishment. This was carried out in the ancient world through gruesome public torture and executions.
Such reforms have only pushed the whole nasty business into the shadows of our social conscience. We now lock bodies away, sometimes forever. Inmates have told me that “you don’t do time—time does you.” Your human dignity is continually assaulted and you slowly shrivel up and die. More than one inmate has told me, “I just don’t want to die in prison.” That’s the ultimate indignity!
Jesus experienced such torture when he was flogged and then crucified, the cruelest form of torture the Romans could devise. Surely, his ability to absorb all that abuse without seeking retaliation is our model for overcoming hatred and cruelty with self-sacrificing love. What does this mean for those of us who profess to follow Jesus, our tortured and executed savior?
Surely, it calls for repentance because many professing Christians have been part of creating Lockdown America while others of us looked the other way. It also means getting as personally involved as possible. The powerful thing about spending time at Graterford prison is that we engaged each other as fellow humans. The inmates could hardly believe they were sitting there talking with college students. And we no longer saw the inmates as faceless criminals. All our stereotypes and social barriers began to fall away.