David arrive home cheerily on Friday night to find the house dark, no supper cooking, and me sitting in a chair crying, clutching my phone.
“What’s going on?” he asked, suddenly worried. It looked like I had just received news that someone had died.
Someone did die. That’s why I was crying.
I’m part of a society that’s killing people.
Mothers who deliver still-born babies are being locked up for years, handicapped and the mentally ill are sentenced to die in prison because the state doesn’t know what else to do with them, 13 year-olds who come from horrific circumstances and have absorbed some of the violence of their environments are being brutally abused in prisons built for men, and will one day die in those prisons because they were sentenced as adults. Illegal all-white juries in Alabama, (even in Monroe county, the town that gives tours of the courthouse where the fictional Atticus Finch defended a black man), are convicting innocent black men to die. One woman was incarcerated for 10 years for writing a bounced check to Toys R Us to buy Christmas presents for her kids. How much more Les Mis does it get?
In Texas, 13 kids were executed before 2005, when the US Supreme court said it was unconstitutional to kill children. The state we’re living in has executed more people than any other state. Here’s one: In 2004, in Texas we executed Cameron Willingham because his house burned down killing his three children, and it was argued it was arson and he set the fire. The arson theories used as scientific evidence back in 1991 when he was convicted have now been repudiated. But he’s dead.
And these children, these women, the mentally ill, minorities— these people are being executed because they don’t have the money to afford quality legal counsel. If Cameron had someone to re-look at his case and appeal it based on new evidence, he might still be alive today. We have a system that lets the rich get off free, and the innocent poor suffer.
The year I started college, the US had 2.3 million people incarcerated.
Reading all this hit hard because we just talked about the broken way we prosecute drug related crimes in the USA in my sociology class. Here it is in two graphs– drug use is pretty equal between white and black people, but arrest rates for black people are astronomically high. This isn’t justice.
And don’t even get me started on the police shootings we’ve seen these past few years.
There was an activist I read about a while ago who used to wear black on days that his state executed people. That’s the horrible part of living in a democracy. I’m killing these people.
Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy weaves in personal stories of his advocacy work around fighting for justice for death row convicts, the poor, minorities, and women, with statistics that make your gut turn over. (The reason I was crying and clutching my phone was because I was reading the book on the kindle app on my phone). I had watched Bryan’s TED talk last year when trying to learn more about social justice work regarding bias in our criminal justice system, so I could picture his soft, clear voice telling the stories of his clients. He told a story in his talk (which he also tells in the book) of meeting Rosa Parks, and telling her about what he did.
“Oh boy, you’re going to get tired, tired, tired,” she said. “So you got to be brave, brave, brave.”
Bryan talks about how brokenness in society and the justice system is a symptom of our brokenness as humans.
“My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear and anger… in their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness and prejudice… So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it make us seem tough, less broken…but simply punishing the broken- walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
In theory, the idea that the State can exert capital punishment sounds just. It doesn’t sound unreasonable to give the government that power to protect law and order. But knowing our own brokenness, knowing how broken the system is, it is completely unjust.
Maybe you’ve never thought about our criminal justice system and you think I’m exaggerating. Educate yourself. Read the book. Learn about the prison industrial complex- for profit prisons that need to keep beds filled to make money, the way prisoners are counted in census data that determines representatives (yet aren’t allowed a vote), learn about the companies that use prison labor to reduce their costs and make more profit, learn that in some Southern states, disenfranchisement has reached higher rates than before the Civil Rights movement because of laws that ban former felons from voting. Learn about phone companies that overcharge calls from prisons, discouraging calls to family (and connection to family is one of the best predictors of positive reintegration to society after release).
And then think about this statement Bryan makes in the book:
“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
Funny, the other book I’m just finishing up right now is a Biblical Theology of Possessions, and the author says something similar. In summing up the perspective of possessions presented in the Old testament wisdom and prophetic literature, he says,
“The key to evaluating any individual church or nation in terms of its use of possessions (personally, collectively or institutionally) is how well it takes care of the poor and powerless in its midst, that is, the cultural equivalents to the father, widow and [refugee/foreigner/immigrant].”
Sit with the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“Woe to you, what sorrow awaits the unjust judges
and those who issue unfair laws.
They deprive the poor of justice
and deny the rights of the needy among my people.
They prey on widows
and take advantage of orphans. (Isaiah 10:1-3)”.
Just sit with that.
So what to do? (Because I like doing things)
- Check out the Ban the Box website and see if you can write a letter to your governor if your state has not yet banned the box. (Or have a phone party and have a bunch of friends phone). Yay Virginia for just passing a “ban the box” action, and also extending voting rights to more than 200, 000 people by allowing offenders to vote!
- If you’re an employer, make sure that your workplace is welcoming to those coming out of incarceration.
- Check out the Equal Justice Initiative and support their work (Bryan Stevenson’s non profit)- there are also tons of resources for learning more about the issue.
- Read The New Jim Crow