During my first year volunteering at Larry C. Kennedy, the elementary and middle school two blocks from our church, I had the first of many interactions that would open my eyes wider and wider to the world our neighborhood children inhabit.
I was showing a group of 7th grade girls a picture of our toddlers and one of the girls asked, “Do you hug your children?” The question felt oddly unnecessary, like asking, “Do you breathe?” I responded, “Of course I do. I hug them and kiss them and tell them I love them all the time.” She gave a predictable “Awww…” followed by a very unpredictable statement from her life: “Ever since my dad got out of jail he never tells me he loves me. He just keeps to himself.” Before I had time to process this another girl in the circle said, “I know. Every since my daddy got out of jail all he does it yell at us.”
My interaction that day highlights why the issue of incarceration should matter to the church. When one person is incarcerated, the impact spreads outward to the family and community.
If this were a rare occurrence, it might not merit much attention. Indeed, until the 1970s incarceration rates were proportionate to those of other industrialized Western nations. Since then, bi-partisan legislation under both Republican and Democratic presidents has spiked our incarceration rates 500%, necessitating the descriptor “mass” incarceration. The United States now imprisons 2.2 million of its citizen. No other nation on earth comes close to our incarceration rates. For every 100,000 citizens, we imprison 716 against Russia’s 475 and China’s 121.
Many of us who are white high school graduates may not be aware of these numbers because they affect us much less. The likelihood of a white male to be imprisoned in his lifetime is 1 in 17. For Latino men it is 1 in 6; for black men it is 1 in 3. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and use drugs at the same rates as people of other races, but represent 45 percent of those imprisoned for drug violations. Education plays a dramatic role as well. Males who completed high school have a 1 in 35 likelihood of being incarcerated. For high school dropouts the number becomes 1 in 10. The effects of incarceration reach far beyond time served–reduced job prospects, the loss of voting rights, and limited availability of housing can last for life.
Political voices debate the narrative behind this state of affairs and what about it should bother us most. Liberals decry the racial inequity of the criminal justice system. Conservatives cite the fiscal irresponsibility of locking up prisoners at costs higher than Ivy League college tuition. Yet by some miracle the left and the right agree on one thing: mass incarceration negatively affects American individuals, families, and communities. It is a problem that must be addressed.
How can the church lead the way? For beginners, we must be informed. Read the statistics and listen to the narratives. Some of us might feel the call to prison ministry through groups like Prison Fellowship. Business owners or managers might initiate employment programs for ex-convicts. All of us can make our voice known to elected representatives about being “smart on crime” rather than “tough on crime.”
Yet our greatest work may lie in prevention. Studies show that 25% of foster children will end up in prison within two years of aging out of the system. When we bring foster children into our home, we are part of the solution. When we invest in the lives of neighborhood children by encouraging and empowering them to graduate from high school, we are part of the solution. When we offer parenting resources to help our neighbors nurture healthy, attached relationships with their children, we are part of the solution.
In all of this, the only lasting solution for any of our neighbors is to be reconciled to God through trusting in Jesus Christ. This massive issue in our nation gives us a host of opportunities to be better enmeshed in areas of need in order to testify to the realities of God’s coming kingdom–forgiveness of sins, renewal of relationships, justice, mercy, and social harmony at our King’s return.
May God make us salt and light in our world for his glory as we engage this challenging issue.
For further reading:
Article from a liberal perspective: The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration
Article from a conservative perspective: The Truth About Mass Incarceration