There was a time in my life when I didn’t know a single person who had been in prison or jail (and I didn’t know the difference between prison or jail either)! I thought prison was simply a place where bad guys went who broke the law. I thought that the American legal system was the same as a justice system (it does its best, but we have much room to grow). All this has changed. I learned that in 2002 America surpassed the world in a category, a category that is not necessarily a cause to celebrate – we now incarcerate at the highest rate of any country in the world (Tsai and Scommegna 2012).
My growing awareness is like many others and was helped by reading Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow who writes, “The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (2010, 13).
As an urban minister and as a Christ-follower, I must pay attention to the impact of mass incarceration, in fact, I cannot escape it. Increasingly my heart has grown – for I see both the need, undeniably there are those who need to be restrained behind bars. But I also have learned that true transformation can take place and that the stigma of being a convicted criminal can overshadow and potentially hold back one’s life indefinitely.
I suppose my attitude started changing when I learned the poignant story of a man who would later become my husband – when I stepped away from statistics and discovered a person. I vividly remember the first time I stepped into the County Jail to visit him. He walked out in a bright orange jumpsuit, such a contrast between the drab cement and the scratched plexiglass. And the tears…
I suppose I started changing when I saw *Jason’s story unfold. He was a neighbor kid on our street, attending the 701:United gym. But home-life was tough and mom was distant due to drugs. When CPS sent him to Foster care, he suffered abuse and ran away. When he was caught, he was put into juvenile detention center, thus starting his criminal record. I usually don’t think of that kind of story when I think of those incarcerated. But that’s the truth of where many kids begin: abuse, broken families, pain and few role models.
I suppose I started changing when Ivan and I launched The Jephthah Prison Project and began our correspondence leadership/discipleship program with inmates. I only facilitate and resource an incarcerated pastor who selects men from the yard and conducts the class. Their development is profound, their homework reports touching, their devotion to God inspiring, their evangelistic commitment humbling. I have learned much from these brothers.
So, I’m on a journey. I went back to County Jail this weekend. Those jumpsuits though! Such a hard place. Bars and bars, slick metal seats, waiting, gates, keys, rust over metal inside and out, low ceilings, narrow doors. And inevitably, the tears. Mine this time.
to be continued…