There are 2.2 million people in our country’s nations and jails – a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years. We incarcerate a greater proportion of our own citizens than any other nation in the world. Just behind us are El Salvador, Rwanda and Russia. The amount of people incarcerated in Michigan alone is about the same as the entire prison population in Canada.
The reasons behind the increase in mass incarceration in our country have been well documented. The “War on Drugs” of the 1980s turned substance abuse problems into a criminal issue – meaning we went from a little less than 41,000 people in prison for drug-related offenses in 1980 to nearly 453,000 in 2017. The National Resource Council has also reported that nearly half of the growth in state prison populations was due to an increase in time served for offensives, the results of harsher mandatory sentencing laws and the reduction of releasing people on parole.
These mass incarceration rates have had a devastating effect on minority communities. According to the Sentencing Project, “Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.”
Michigan Radio is in the midst of a series called “Life on the Inside,” exploring what life is like in prisons in our state. At the beginning of the series, they spoke with historian Heather Ann Thomson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book about the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971, “Blood in the Water.” Thompson noted that our society lacks clarity on the purpose of prisons. One view is that the goal of prisons is to rehabilitate people, to enable them to return to society as law-abiding and contributing citizens. Another view, however, is that the purpose of prisons is punishment, the way in which the state enacts vengeance upon those who have transgressed our laws.
This same confusion of purpose exists in Christianity. A recent poll commissioned by Prison Fellowship found that 88 percent of practicing Christians believed the primary goal of the justice system should be “restoration for all involved: the victim, the community and the person responsible for the crime.” However, in that same poll, 53 percent believed that it is important to make an example out of someone for certain crimes, even if that means punishing them more harshly than the crime deserves.
Jesus told those who follow him that whatever they do for those in prison, they do for Jesus himself. That is why Christians in the 18th century, particularly evangelicals and Quakers, worked so hard to change the prison system that existed in that time. Many Christian leaders in our own time have called for prison reform – not only to deal with the racial disparities in rates of incarceration, but also reform to the methods used in our prisons. The United Nation guidelines say that keeping an individual in solitary confinement for more than 15 days is a form of church. Our country holds more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement, sometimes even for years or decades.
One of the most meaningful organizations I have worked with in our area is Humanity for Prisoners (HfP). Formed in 2001, when Doug Tjapkes sought to help the wrongfully convicted Maurice Carter, the organization has received nearly 8,000 requests for assistance in 2019 alone. HfP focuses on personalized problem-solving services for those who are incarcerated. They have been on the forefront of prison reform issues in our own state, calling out inhumane practices and connecting people who have often suffered horrible abuse with professionals who can help them.
But they do small things, as well. They help those who are incarcerated find and communicate with their families. They help inmates find medical treatment and, at times, appropriate hospice treatment. They do significant advocacy for prisoners with disabilities or other impairments. They help people meet with the parole board. This agency is quite literally the hands and feet of Jesus to those who are incarcerated.
I served on the board of the organization for several years, including as treasurer, and the most meaningful thing I saw over and over again was prisoners contributing their own hard-won funds to the work of HfP. They know the difference this organization makes.
One of the most beautiful things about HfP is that they support people because they are people, because they recognize the dignity and humanity which each person has, no matter how broken their life has become. That’s not like other faith-based organizations, which often only help people of their own faith. For example, in 2006, a federal judge revoked taxpayer funding to the above-noted Prison Fellowship because they offered evangelical participants better housing, food and activities with nothing similar offered to those who were not religious.
It is essential for more Christians to learn about the moral stain that mass incarceration is upon our country. We need more Christians who are willing to stand up and be advocates for those who are incarcerated – seeking a system that is not purely punitive, but one that is restorative, one that helps people rediscover the image of God upon their soul. Learn. Advocate. Speak up.
And support the work of organizations like Humanity for Prisoners. They are doing the work of Jesus day in and day out. And, if you want to change the lives of those who are incarcerated for the better, a good start is helping them rediscover and claim their own humanity.
About the writer: The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.