Incarcerated neighbors need our help. Their plight impacts us all. Our mandatory sentencing laws have created a mass incarceration system that cost each one of us about $260 a year. We are paying $80 billion dollars to lock up significant numbers of non-violent offenders. That does not include the cost of local jails which cycle through 11 million people each year, the cost of our system of probation which monitors 5.3 million people, or the enormous cost of a caste system that excludes 20 million people from jobs, housing and other benefits.
The cost of mass incarceration is too high.
Many blame racism propagated through conservative policies. But the truth is we are all to blame for this problem. Conservatives, Liberals, Black and White leaders, Media and the Public conspired to get tough on crime and in a short span of 40 years our prison population exploded.
Over those 40 years Americans did not become decidedly more criminal. But we chose a wrong method for addressing a problem with drugs, mental health, and non-violent property offenses. The overwhelming majority of prisoners are non-violent offenders and there are better, more cost-effective ways of addressing this population.
In no way do I discount the role of race in our prison population. No rational person could say the African American prison population fairly represents the population of criminals. It is not even close. We have a racialized system. But if we can acknowledge we all contributed to the problem, then perhaps we can all come together to do something to resolve it. Here’s how you can do justice for incarcerated neighbors.
Understand the problems facing incarcerated neighbors.
Many people focus on our prison population. Yes, we are 5% of the world’s population and house 25% of the world’s prisoners. But that is the smallest piece of the big pie problem.
Arrested & Jailed
More than 11 million people churn through local jails each year. 99% of the total jail growth in the last 15 years was in the detention of people who are PRESUMED INNOCENT. But because of a lack of funds and access to attorneys they sit in jail for days, weeks, or months before being released. 70% are never charged.
So what can you do to help our jailed neighbors?
- Meet with the local States Attorney. They have incredible power in the bringing of charges.
- Meet with the Chief Judge who oversees the bond judge and setting of appropriate bonds.
- Raise awareness and rally support within the neighborhood.
- Rally attorneys willing to step in. Need help? Visit gji.org.
What can you do to help those in prison?
- I appreciate my more liberal advocacy friends, but nothing replaces building a relationship with prisoners. “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Mt. 25:36. Don’t just pray for prisoners, pray with them. Share the hope of the gospel. Establish a Bible Study or Worship Service. Build relationships.
- I appreciate my conservative ministry friends, but we can’t continue on the same path. While we have a “law and order” president, there remains broad based support for sentencing reform and other criminal justice reform measures. Ask your congressman where they stand and encourage them to support justice reform.
Justice reform saves money and lives. It restores families. As Christians we should seek a restorative justice model which reflects our faith. We were all criminals guilty of sin. We deserve punishment – the death penalty. But God in His grace gives us a new chance. If we will put our trust in Him He will forgive our sins and expunge our sentence.
This is the largest piece of the pie. If we include Americans who have been arrested for more than a traffic stop, it would soar to an estimated 1 in 3 Americans. Surprisingly we have no detailed statistics for the number of released felons. The most comprehensive study was conducted in 2010 out of Princeton which revealed a conservative figure of 20 million – in 2010!
Our neighbors returning from prison have paid their debt to society. Often they paid much more. Instead of seeking to help them become productive we set them up for failure and then point to a 40% recidivism rate within three years as justification for our position.
The problem is we have established laws that prevent returning felons from occupying public housing, receiving benefits like food stamps while seeking employment, turn a blind eye to discrimination in private housing and other contracts, and encourage employment discrimination by denying licenses in several industries and requiring people to check a box on prior incarceration. Add to these barriers the challenge of emotional reentry. Families strained or broken. Friends estranged. Churches that too often push felons out and communities that do the same. For more on these challenges review this helpful guide.
Be a voice for incarcerated neighbors
We have created a permanent underclass without a voice. A 2010 report indicates 5.85 million people have lost the right to vote because of a felony. Laws vary by state on voter disenfranchisement, but we send a clear message to our incarcerated neighbors that they are not welcome here any longer when we deny them the basic right to vote.
As Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow,
“Unless the number of people who are labeled felons is dramatically reduced, and unless the laws and policies that keep ex-offenders marginalized from the mainstream society and economy are eliminated, the system will continue to create and maintain an enormous undercaste.” P. 96.
So what can you do to help returning prisoners?
- Welcome them. Take a lesson from our friends helping refugees. Work with a family for reunification, housing, job placement and welcoming them to the church.
- Create a job bank. You have employers in your church and community. Encourage them to hire returning prisoners.
- Create support systems. We have great programs for divorce recovery and grief recovery. Why not prison recovery? Especially if you are near a prison or part of a community with a high reentry population.
- Work to “ban the box”, the check mark requiring notice of prior conviction. Work to eliminate all barriers including food, housing and employment.
- Establish a gospel justice center. If you want to deepen your impact in assisting prisoner reentry then you need lawyers. Incarcerated neighbors need help with records to expunge, child support, driver’s licenses, contract discrimination, housing and other issues where a professional advocate is needed. Contact us.
One church helping incarcerated neighbors
Willow Creek has a strong prison ministry. Yes, they are big but their prison ministry is replicable. They train volunteers to enter the prison system to establish relationships. The team serve families of incarcerated neighbors. They network with businesses to help hire returning inmates and hold a job fair for them. Willow has a gospel justice center to provide legal education and direct assistance. They keep informed of laws and advocate. Each volunteer reflects Jesus to neighbors in need. So can you.
Behind every number is a person made in the image of God. Read some of their stories in our blog
Christ followers should care about prisoners. Churches preach on Sunday the words of Moses and love the Psalms of David – both murderers. We recognize the wrongful incarceration of Joseph because of a racialized system. Together, we cheer for Daniel and his friends when they stand against unjust laws and are thrown in a fiery furnace or lion’s den. And we marvel at the courage of Paul, Peter and the early church who frequently spent time in prison.
We worship a convicted felon.
Above all we worship a convicted felon, a death row inmate. He was innocent. But he was clear in letting us know we are not. That is why he took the punishment for us. His grace should make us just. As Jesus identifies with us in our suffering, we ought to identify with others. In doing so we serve Jesus. That is the point of his words in Matthew 25. “I was in prison and you visited me.” And the Bible’s clear instruction to the Hebrews:
“Don’t forget about those in prison. Suffer with them as though you were there yourself. Share the sorrow of those being mistreated, as though you feel their pain in your own bodies.” Heb. 13:3
How do I get started?
National Locked in Solidarity Day is Thursday, February 9. More than 50 different sites will hold services. Find one near you. If there isn’t a site near you, pull together a small group and review the tool kit. Join the hashtag #LIS2017.
If you are in the Chicago area join us from 12:00 to 1:00 at our national office, 1750 Grandstand Place, #1, Elgin, Illinois. We are having pizza for prisoners and will discuss specific legal action steps. Some of our legal ministries from across the country will be joining us by phone.
Finally, read more. In a ministry context I recommend Gospel Justice, providing help and hope for those oppressed by legal injustice and the free companion guide, Do Likewise, living the gospel through compassion and justice. I also recommend Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, a story of justice and redemption, and one of the best books on mass incarceration is Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.