Incarceration: A Crisis in Search of a Ministry

By James E. Copple

There are at least 2.3 million compelling stories to be told in the self-perpetuating vicious cycle of institutional incarceration, narratives that attempt to answer: “Why? What happened?” But maybe the better question would ask: “What didn’t happen? What’s missing?”

John and Cecelia have a story, and it’s one that traces the well-worn ruts of opportunistic isolationism, economic and social, and their companions – despair, drugs and violence. But in their story, and in the serial drama and tragedy of this American crisis, where is the Church?

John was born and raised in Detroit. Among the empty streets and abandoned properties of a city in decay, John would try to find his place in a world that simply had no place.  He would marry Cecelia from the Brewster-Douglass projects on the city’s edge, where John lived with his father.  John and Cecelia were only 17 years old and would have their first child within six months.

John couldn’t find a permanent job, and he was determined his family would have more than a life on public assistance could offer. But with few alternatives for income, John hooked-up with a drug crew as a mule for a local cartel. He was arrested June 15, 1995, and was found in possession of 15 ounces of heroin and six ounces of marijuana.  He was 18 years old.

It was a first offense, but John was sentenced to eight years in prison that put him 150 miles away from his family. Alone with the family’s financial and emotional stressors, Cecelia worked as a waitress. She was without mentors, community or support, compounded by her own naiveté, and in a moment of desperation, looked to a local pimp as an answer. Cecelia made enough money to feed the children and keep them adequately clothed, but it was a decision of descent into prostitution.

Her pimp demanded more and more of her, and in the struggle to cope, Cecelia became a heroin addict.  She lost custody of the children; attacked a child protective-services worker; and was sentenced to six months in jail. The couple’s parental rights were terminated.

John was stabbed in a prison fight four years into his sentence but served his time and received an early release. He was already sinking into feelings of despair and bitterness, and that was only exacerbated by the struggle to find a job with a felony record and the considerable practical, developmental and social obstacles of those gaping six years of life-interrupted.

Meanwhile, Cecelia was deeply entrenched in heroin and pressured John for money to feed her addiction. Determined to keep Cecelia alive, John walked into a liquor store armed with a .357 Magnum stolen from a local gun dealer.  The proprietor confronted him with a shotgun, unloading both barrels into John’s chest and killing him instantly. It’s an end for one man, but there is no end to the serial tragedy for those caught in America’s system of mass incarceration. And to be sure, we are all caught in and affected by the destructive tentacles of institutional incarceration and its mindset.

John’s narrative isn’t an isolated incident – there are 2.3 million people imprisoned or warehoused in U.S. jails, and they face many of the same barriers. Mandatory sentencing guidelines that first sent John to prison required he serve five to 10 years. Detroit had no jobs for John or Cecelia, either before legal trouble or after, and prostitution and drugs represented the only options in their community. Child protective-services did its job in removing children from an unsafe environment and putting them in foster care. Everything happened the way it usually happens – everybody did their job, but there was no escape route for two people caught in the cycle of urban poverty.

Reviewing this case history, I saw no evidence of the Church. I saw no priest; no pastor; and no intervention with a purpose.  There were no services to throw a lifeline to this young couple riding the wave of one bad decision after another – not from churches surrounding the projects, nor from the gilded buildings just outside the ring of poverty.

Mass incarceration is the new liberation movement, and the Church should be at the front of the movement.  But as in so many “causes,” this is a crisis in search of a ministry that can make a difference.

Friends and colleagues, according to the International Center for Prison Statistics, the United States ranks number two behind the Seychelles as the nation with the most incarcerated per 100,000. We incarcerate 724 people for every 100,000 of our population.

We execute more people than any other constitutional democracy in the world. In fact, according to Amnesty International the United competes with China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia for the distinction of most executions. Out of sight; out of mind.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S Department of Justice, “The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. We have become content to warehouse people in trouble or crisis.

At the core of our service and ministry, there should be a resounding “NO” to the status quo that incarcerates every three out of 15 black youths. The prison industrial complex is a well-oiled machine begging to grind-up the lives of our young people and our communities. Because we don’t see it every day (and because we don’t look), there is little attention this inhumane practice.

Scripture challenges us to visit the imprisoned and care for the sick. But it isn’t just about duty or a social call – it means looking at systemic issues that lead to incarceration. It is about what we do with people who re-enter society; about working to protect their rights; how we support them; about creating access to services that provide an environment of dignity and hope.

The Church can play a role in this re-entry.

We can speak to injustices that create unforgiving environments focused on confinement and isolation; that fail to distinguish and support prevention; that ignore holistic integration; and that dismiss collateral damage to individuals, families, communities, culture, our country and humanity.

We can stand at the city gates; demand justice; and pray for mercy. This crisis should be our cause and our ministry.

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