Monday, April 20, 2015

Land of the Free on Lockdown

By the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson

In the United States of America, we incarcerate more people than anywhere else in the world. While the U.S. is home to five percent of the world’s population, we nonetheless incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Our claim to be the land of the free is scarred by the issues surrounding mass incarceration, which include the deep legacy of ongoing racism in this country, a private, for-profit Prison Industrial System, disparate mandatory sentencing that unjustly targets people of color and non-violent offenders, and a failure to live into God’s call for restorative justice, which focuses on making relationship right and on restitution, rather than on retribution and punishment.

According to the Sentencing Project, 2.2 million persons are incarcerated in the United States. This represents a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years. The Prison Industrial System is responsible for the incarceration of one in three young African American men – in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole — yet mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue, rather than a racial justice or civil rights issue (or crisis).

In the wake of the release of the United States Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, it is clear that there are cases of long-term mistrust among marginalized communities. This mistrust and fear stems from a deep-seated practice by law enforcement to target and over-criminalize communities of color. It is difficult for any community, targeted by the very people who are called to protect them, to avoid the struggles of over-criminalization.

During my ministry in Memphis, TN, it was clear that once the perpetual cycle of the criminalization of a community begins, it negatively impacts households and generations of people. Children are impacted by the absence of an incarcerated parent. Jails and prisons become rites of passage for young people and whole communities of both young and older persons are destroyed by underground economies of guns, violence, sex trafficking, and too many lives lost prematurely to drugs and alcohol.

The question we are raising at this year’s Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day and Ecumenical Advocacy Days pertains to more than ending mass incarceration. We are raising deeper questions –

“How do we restore communities that have experienced a historically negative impact by the criminal justice system in the United States?”

“How do we eradicate the corporate takeover of the United States and other countries across the globe, which leads to the denial of human dignity and violations of human rights?”

For us, as Presbyterians, these are the related questions that we ought to raise and take back to our local communities and congregations. Our hope is that both of these training events will be a time of deep introspection as to how Jesus Christ is calling you to be a disciple at a deeper level of engagement.

Let’s come together with a mind to End Mass Incarceration and Break the Chains of Systems of Exploitation.

Ecumenical Advocacy Days
April 16-19, 2016