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Evangelical witness in an age of mass incarceration

For many evangelicals, the question of our nation’s penal system is one largely unconsidered. Our vast and growing prison system operates behind a curtain, mostly hidden from view. And yet, for many of our communities, it has a profound and long-lasting impact.

Biblical revelation forms the foundational reality for Christian thinking. We should be leery of jumping into any moral or ethical dilemma without first considering the biblical parameters for righteousness and justice. Beyond that, faithful Christians can have a variety of opinions and convictions, even disagreements, as we all strive to submit to biblical authority. I know this is the case with discussions about incarceration, criminal sentencing and justice. Perhaps we can seek to find some common ground though.

As Christian citizens in a democracy, we understand that the “power of the sword” in Romans 13 has been entrusted to us, the people. And it is we who will give an account to God for how we have stewarded that power. So we cannot choose to look the other way when it comes to incarceration.

American justice and the current crisis

While the United States comprises five percent of the global population, our nation houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. That’s a staggering number that tells a story. For instance, look deeper into those numbers, and you will find that black men are disproportionately incarcerated. Take a second look, and you will see that the rate of incarceration for women has surged dramatically in the last three decades. All of this comes at a moral cost and brings measurable implications to our communities and churches. Unfortunately, evangelicalism’s silence on this urgent moral issue is deafening.

Faithful Christians can and will disagree over a host of policy questions when it comes to how to ensure a just and equitable penal system in this country. We need to be able to have civil and gracious dialogue even when we see things differently, especially among our Christian communities.

But surely we can all agree that the status quo is woefully unacceptable. Not only is it inefficient, it is also immoral. So let’s at least agree to have the conversation. Let’s agree to start talking about this. Let’s commit to listening well, learning, and then seeking ways in which our churches and communities can be faithful.

Here are three areas where an evangelical social ethic must be brought to bear on our American prison system.

First, the racialization of American incarceration raises troubling questions about enduring racism.

Right now in the United States, the statistical odds suggest that one out of every three black men will likely be incarcerated at one point in his life. In contrast, only one out of 17 white men will. The disparity also exists for Latino men, one out of six who will likely be incarcerated.

Why is this? Some will suggest that black and brown men are just more likely to commit crimes, especially drug related offenses that comprise so much of the surging incarceration rates. But Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness documents the various ways in which the American penal system is structured in an inherently inequitable way. Evangelicals can and should have healthy dialogue and even disagreement on what might prove to be the best solution to the problem. But surely we can agree that a prison system that is incarcerating this many of our nation’s black men is scandalous.

Second, the dramatic increase in female incarceration comes at a tremendous cost.

One of the neglected realities of our incarceration is the way women have entered into the system. In fact, between 1980 and 2010, the number of women in prison increased by 646 percent. The racial disparity that is endemic among male prisoners is also at play here. The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for black women is one in 19, while it is one in 118 for white women.

This brings a host of ethical and moral problems. For example, women can be shackled during labor and delivery in 13 states. While the Federal Bureau of Prisons ceased shackling pregnant inmates, these states have not addressed the issue in their respective systems. And the majority of children born to imprisoned women are immediately separated from their mothers. Only a handful of states have adopted creative models to provide continued opportunities for qualified inmates to stay with their children. The National Women’s Law Center reports that only thirteen states provide a prison nursery system for qualified mothers, and of these, only two allow children to stay beyond the age of two.

Third, we should be leery of any system that profits on the misery of another.

It can never be Christian to profit from another’s misery. Throughout the Bible, God makes clear to his people that righteousness and justice never bow before the idols of profit. Southern Baptists have rightly spoken in the past against predatory systems that profit from the misfortune and suffering of others. For example, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a strong resolution in 2014 rightly lamenting the prevalence of payday lending operations that prey upon the poor and vulnerable.

While there may be a number of creative solutions in privatization, we should at least give due consideration to the inherent challenges in the commercialization of our nation’s prison systems. While a free market is right and good for economic development, it is a horrible model for serving justice.

Private prison companies now take in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue, while the federal prison population has more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. What if the financial incentives for these companies were not tied to capacity—the number of inmates housed—but to demonstrated success in rehabilitation and lowered recidivism rates? Surely we could leverage the economic interest in a better and more productive way.

As it stands now, nearly two-thirds of these private prison contracts require that state and local governments maintain a fixed occupancy rate, usually of 90 percent, producing a system built to incentivize incarceration. Most often, if they fail to meet those thresholds, taxpayers are expected to foot the bill for empty beds. This system has produced its fair share of scandals too. Perhaps the most notorious was the “Kids for Cash” scandal where two judges were convicted of receiving $2.6 million in kickbacks from private prison companies for sending more minors with unusually large sentences.

In many of these private prisons, inmates receive as little as 17 cents per hour for labor of up to six hours a day. In contrast, inmates in federal prisons can work more hours and earn $1.25 an hour. What often goes untold is how many Fortune500 companies are now reliant on low-cost prison labor. Of course, there is moral and economic complexity involved in an issue like this. We should be leery of simplistic generalizations or solutions. But, by and large, Americans in general, including evangelicals, are not even involved in the conversation.

This only scratches the surface of some incredibly complex moral questions regarding the American penal system. Surely, there’s more to say about how we treat prisoners while incarcerated, the challenges posed by incarcerating more and more of our nation’s children, and questions as to the democratic rights of prisoners, particularly those convicted of felonies, to vote. These issues require more conversation from the broad spectrum of evangelicalism and they need not polarize our churches. Surely we can learn and listen together, as a people marked by both grace and truth.

So where do we go from here? What does it mean to make disciples of Christ in the age of mass incarceration?

God’s care for the prisoner

You might be tempted to think that the incarcerated are “the scum of the earth.” And don’t forget those “violent offenders.” They’re the worst sort, right? Well, have you considered Moses? Here was a man who saw his fellow citizen being abused by an Egyptian supervisor and intervened. However it happened, when everything was over, Moses was guilty of murder and ended up a fugitive, a violent offender. There’s no small irony that years later, on the backside of a mountain, God revealed his law to this same murderer, commanding, “Thou shalt not kill.”

And what about David? Here’s a man who sees a woman who is not his wife one night and lustfully desires her. She’s married to another man, so David conspires to have him killed. His plan is successful, and he eventually takes the woman as his wife. It would take the prophet Nathan, not a district attorney or grand jury, to indict this conspiratorial killer.

And the Scriptures are full of men who were incarcerated. Joseph. Samson. Daniel. Jeremiah. John the Baptist. Peter. James. John. And yes, even Jesus was processed through the judicial system of his day and unjustly convicted and sentenced.

So we might think twice before we casually assume or generalize about the condition of those 2.4 million men and women living in our nation’s prisons. These are people, made in the image of God. And every one of them has a unique story.

Have you ever noticed how Jesus launched his public ministry? Luke 4:17-19 tells us how he entered into the synagogue in Nazareth, opened up the scroll, and read Isaiah’s prophecy: “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (cf. Isa. 61:1). Most gloriously and wonderfully for Christians, that certainly means liberty from the bondage of sin and death. But it does not mean less than that. It is also good news, right now, to those locked up.

This is also why Jesus specifically identifies the way we treat prisoners as one evidence of whether or not we truly know him (Mat. 25:36). The writer to the Hebrews also makes specific mention of our duty to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body” (Heb. 13:3). While these passages have in mind especially our fellow Christians incarcerated for the faith, it cannot imply that we neglect our unbelieving neighbor in the next cell.

Thank God for ministries like Prison Fellowship. Thanks to the enduring vision of Chuck Colson, evangelicals have been on the front lines of caring for the men and women who live in our prisons. Thank God for people like Dr. Harold Dean Trulear, a Baptist scholar and theologian who is helping so many to think biblically on these issues. But there is an overwhelming amount of work to be done. It is time for the evangelical conscience to be pricked. If we don’t lead the effort, who will?

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