Category: mass incarceration

Trulear: Prison Ministry after Chuck Colson

Dr. Harold Dean Trulear

As a pastor, a scholar, and an ex-prisoner, Harold Dean Trulear has earned the right to talk about prison ministry from the outside in and from the inside out.  I last saw Dr. Trulear in Washington DC when we were both part of a convening of faith leaders interested in ending mass incarceration.  Pat Nolan of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship also attended that gathering.  Like Trulear, Nolan has seen both sides of the prison wall and we had some good, frank conversation about the future of reform.  In this honest appraisal written for the Center for Public Justice, Dr. Trulear evaluates the mixed legacy of Nolan’s old boss, Charles Colson, and points the way to a viable relationship between Prison Fellowship and the Black Church.

Prison Ministry in the Post-Colson Era

By Harold Dean Trulear

The recent passing of Chuck Colson brings opportunity to reflect on the important legacy of his ministry and the ways in which Prison Fellowship participated in a resurgence of interest in prison ministry. Christian faith significantly influenced early forms of incarceration in this country, from the philosophy of repentance institutionalized in the penitentiary movement to the role of chaplains as singular service providers for inmates prior to the era of “corrections” and “rehabilitation.” Unfortunately, in recent decades prisons have been more punitive and controlling than redemptive.

Chuck Colson, for many (but not all) Americans, humanized the inmate. He created an organization that pressed for a recovery of transformation, rehabilitation and real “corrections,” initially through evangelism and later through initiatives that pressed for reform in prison conditions, sentencing issues and criminal justice policy. For many Americans, Colson’s work provided opportunity for a renewed commitment to a population whose treatment Jesus included in matters of judgment in Matthew 25.

In spite of the work of Colson and others, many people are still trapped in what T. Richard Snyder called “the spirit of punishment,” in which revenge—often euphemized as “seeking justice”—trumps grace and forgiveness, which are central to our justification before God through the atonement. Many Christians continue to reflect the broader cultural consensus of revenge, which is a sad by-product of our failure to develop a critique of modern and post-modern culture beyond issues such as sexuality, authority and family.

African American churches constitute another group for whom Colson’s leadership must be qualified. The historic, disproportionate confinement of people of color connected many Black congregations to jails and prisons prior to the emergence of Colson’s Prison Fellowship—both through personal networks and through a sense of serving the marginalized. And while Colson led the charge for federal criminal justice policy reform for white Evangelicals and political conservatives, African American Congressman Danny Davis (D.-Ill.) and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference provided the leadership for African Americans.

Chuck Colson, as a national figure, and Prison Fellowship, as a national organization, have exercised faithful stewardship of their resources in the implementation of their national ministry and its local incarnations. Yet, the relationship between Prison Fellowship and local congregations—particularly Black churches—has been uneasy. In 2008, a partnership developed between Prison Fellowship and the historically Black denomination, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, signaling what Colson himself called “a perfect storm” around criminal justice issues. Yet, tensions emerged surrounding the need for Black congregations to access resources to expand their prison ministry presence in a manner that reflected a true partnership, rather than a paternalistic engagement placing the national organization at the forefront and the local congregation in the background. Prison Fellowship staff were charged with the task of providing training and certification for Black congregations to minister to their own community members. This sense of paternalism—and the resentment it created—was exacerbated by the ability of Prison Fellowship to attract significantly more financial resources than local organizations and congregations.

So whither the future? First, in addition to continued evangelism, prison ministry must continue to expand into matters of discipleship and policy. The presence of the church in the jail cannot simply be a matter of “soul-winning.” Secondly, prison ministry must view its work as a fundamental province of local congregations. With 1.6 million adults in state and federal prisons, and up to 7 million more rotating annually through the county jail system, it is difficult to imagine a congregation in America whose relationships do not stretch directly into some prison or jail. Churches must act on their responsibility to minister to the prisoners within their own community. National organizations like Prison Fellowship must also redouble efforts to partner with local congregations to empower them to be indigenous stations of reconciliation that can supply far more social capital than any parachurch/volunteer network. Third, there must be real reconciliation between white Evangelicals who control parachurch operations and African American congregations whose family and community members are the targets of these parachurch efforts.

All of this amounts to a real balkanization of power from centralized control of ministry (that’s right, just like political federalism) into the type of local investment that flourishes when properly capitalized in both human and financial resources. Colson saw this need personally, and these shifts would honor his legacy in terms as great as the work he accomplished during his lifetime.

—Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing CommunitiesPrison Ministry and Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, DC, and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

How Louisiana achieved the world’s highest incarceration rate

By Alan Bean

The New Orleans Times-Picayune spent a full year answering a simple question: why does the state of Louisiana lock up more of its citizens than any other jurisdiction on the face of the earth. 

There are a number of answers to this question, but the big engine driving mass incarceration in Louisiana is money.  Back in the 1980s, with jails and prisons overcrowded and nowhere to place the overflow, legislators decided to sweeten the pot for the parish sheriffs who rule the Louisiana hinterland.  As a result, dozens of small communities are addicted to the incarceration business.  Over half of the state’s inmates are currently locked up in Parish institutions or facilities run by private prisons like LaSalle Corrections.  Consider this quick quote:

A drop in the incarceration rate could spell doom for both LaSalle Corrections and the sheriffs. The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association lobbies extensively on its members’ behalf and funds campaigns through a related political action committee. Private prison companies have the resources to be major political donors themselves. With strategically placed contributions, they can influence legislation as well as potentially steer inmates to their own prisons.

When thousands of public and private jobs depend on full prisons, the prisons will be full and God help anyone foolish enough to stand in the way.

The result is that Louisiana inmates doing three or four years for check fraud and first-offense drug crime are given virtually no vocational training while inmates doing life at state facilities like Angola learn valuable skills they will never be able to invest in the free world.

The Times-Picayune is to be commended for producing the kind of investigative reporting we rarely see these days.  You will find one of the leading articles below, but a wealth of information awaits in the section of their website dedicated to this topic.

North Louisiana family is a major force in the state’s vast prison industry

JONESBORO — Clay McConnell is an unlikely scion for a prison empire. An ordained minister, his curly brown hair is fashionably rumpled, and he gets flustered when speaking in front of a video camera. His father, Billy, is the brains behind LaSalle Corrections, the one who expanded the family business from senior citizens to criminals. (more…)

Carter: it’s time to end the death penalty

By Alan Bean

The Associated Baptist Press is an excellent compendium of Baptist views from every conceivable point on the political and theological spectrum.  Jimmy Carter has been called the greatest living former president, and I agree with that assessment.  Most retired politicians adopt bland, predictable positions on controversial issues, I suspect for fear of ruining their precious legacies.  Carter calls ’em as he sees ’em, even when (as with the Palestinian issue) his views run counter to popular opinion.  In this piece he provides a compact and compelling version of the case against capital punishment. 

(ABP) — For many reasons, it is time for Georgia and other states to abolish the death penalty. A recent poll showed that 61 percent of Americans would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder.

Also, just 1 percent of police chiefs think that expanding the death penalty would reduce violent crime. This change in public opinion is steadily restricting capital punishment, both in state legislatures and in the federal courts.

As Georgia’s chief executive, I competed with other governors to reduce our prison populations. We classified all new inmates to prepare them for a productive time in prison, followed by carefully monitored early-release and work-release programs. We recruited volunteers from service clubs who acted as probation officers and “adopted” one prospective parolee for whom they found a job when parole was granted. At that time, in the 1970s, only one in 1,000 Americans was in prison.

Our nation’s focus is now on punishment, not rehabilitation. Although violent crimes have not increased, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 7.43 per 1,000 adults imprisoned at the end of 2010. Our country is almost alone in our fascination with the death penalty. Ninety percent of all executions are carried out in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

One argument for the death penalty is that it is a strong deterrent to murder and other violent crimes. In fact, evidence shows just the opposite. The homicide rate is at least five times greater in the United States than in any Western European country, all without the death penalty.

Southern states carry out more than 80 percent of the executions but have a higher murder rate than any other region. Texas has by far the most executions, but its homicide rate is twice that of Wisconsin, the first state to abolish the death penalty. Look at similar adjacent states: There are more capital crimes in South Dakota, Connecticut and Virginia (with death sentences) than neighboring North Dakota, Massachusetts and West Virginia (without death penalties).

Furthermore, there has never been any evidence that the death penalty reduces capital crimes or that crimes increased when executions stopped. Tragic mistakes are prevalent. DNA testing and other factors have caused 138 death sentences to be reversed since I left the governor’s office.

The cost for prosecuting executed criminals is astronomical. Since 1973, California has spent roughly $4 billion in capital cases leading to only 13 executions, amounting to about $307 million each.

Some devout Christians are among the most fervent advocates of the death penalty, contradicting Jesus Christ and misinterpreting Holy Scriptures and numerous examples of mercy. We remember God’s forgiveness of Cain, who killed Abel, and the adulterer King David, who had Bathsheba’s husband killed. Jesus forgave an adulterous woman sentenced to be stoned to death and explained away the “eye for an eye” scripture.

There is a stark difference between Protestant and Catholic believers. Many Protestant leaders are in the forefront of demanding ultimate punishment. Official Catholic policy condemns the death penalty.

Perhaps the strongest argument against the death penalty is extreme bias against the poor, minorities or those with diminished mental capacity. Although homicide victims are six times more likely to be black rather than white, 77 percent of death penalty cases involve white victims. Also, it is hard to imagine a rich white person going to the death chamber after being defended by expensive lawyers. This demonstrates a higher value placed on the lives of white Americans.

It is clear that there are overwhelming ethical, financial, and religious reasons to abolish the death penalty.

Jimmy Carter was the 39th president and is founder of not-for-profit Carter Center in Atlanta, advancing peace and health worldwide.

Western: we can cut crime and prisons at the same time


Crime and Punishment

Public Safety Doesn’t Require More Inmates

By Bruce Western

This article orginally appeared in the Boston Review.

By the end of the 1990s, policymakers and police were celebrating the great American crime decline. Rates of murder, robbery, and rape had fallen across cities and suburbs, among rich and poor.

Less appreciated perhaps is the continuing decline in crime in the 2000s. In every state fewer incidences of serious violence and property crime were reported to police in 2010 than in 2000. The murder rate is now the lowest it has been since the early 1960s.

Research on the 1990s traces the crime drop to better policing; to a subsiding crack trade, which, at its height in the late 1980s, unleashed a wave of murderous violence; and to increasing prison populations.

However, some researchers find the apparently large effect of imprisonment controversial. Driven by tough-on-crime policy and intensified drug enforcement, prison populations grew unchecked from the early 1970s until the last decade, but crime rates fluctuated without any clear trend. By the early 2000s incarceration rates had grown to extraordinary levels in poor communities. Whole generations of young, mostly minority and poorly educated men were being locked up, leading to the United States’s current status as the world’s largest jailer, in both absolute and relative terms.

Prisons may have reduced crime a little in the short run, but at the current scale the negative effects of incarceration are likely to outweigh the positive. Commonplace incarceration among poor young men fuels cynicism about the legal system, destabilizes families, and reduces economic opportunities.

Over the last few years, the rate of prison population growth in the states finally began to slow. (The growth in federal prisons has continued unabated.) As the political salience of crime declined and the cost of prisons ballooned, policymakers and the courts turned to alternatives to incarceration.

Twelve states reduced imprisonment in the last decade. These states diverted more drug offenders to probation and community programs, and parolees were less likely to return to the penitentiary.

All the states that reduced imprisonment also recorded reductions in crime. For instance, between 2000 and 2010, New York cut imprisonment by about a fifth, and the crime rate fell by about 25 percent.

States that raised their imprisonment rates averaged similar reductions in crime, though the declines show a lot of variation. Where prisons grew by more than 20 percent, crime fell by a little less than the national average. And in some places—such as Maine, Arkansas, and West Virginia—crime barely fell at all.

It seems clear, then, that ever-increasing rates of incarceration are not necessary to reduce crime. Although it’s difficult to say precisely how much the growing scale of punishment reduced crime in the 1990s, the crime decline has been sustained even as imprisonment fell in many states through the 2000s.

These data are good news for governors who want to cut prison budgets. But cuts alone may not work. Policymakers should study cases such as New York and New Jersey. These states cut imprisonment while building new strategies for sentencing, parole and after-prison programs.

The era of mass incarceration is not over, but there are signs of reversal. Given the social costs of incarceration—concentrated in poor neighborhoods—these are heartening trends. The last decade shows that public safety can flourish, even as punishment is curtailed.

Bruce Western, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, is author of Punishment and Inequality in America.

Will Trayvon Martin’s death spark the movement to end mass incarceration?

After news spread about the killing of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, many began comparing Martin’s case to the 1955 murder of 14-year old Emmett Till.  Although some are critical of the comparison, arguing that comparing Martin to Till suggests nothing has changed since the 1950s, Ibram Rogers argues that we must look at the context of their deaths and what their murders symbolized.  Till’s death was a symbol of racism in the Jim Crow South.  Martin’s death is a symbol of racial profiling and the criminalization of black men in 2012.  Just as the death of Emmett Till galvanized the civil rights movement, Ibram wonders: “Will the anger over Martin’s death spark the New Abolitionist Movement against mass incarceration?” MWN 

Probing the Comparison – Trayvon Martin/Mass Incarceration and Emmett Till/Segregation

by Dr. Ibram Rogers

Protests are blooming this spring. Black Americans are enraged and emboldened, shouting entreaties for justice, justice, justice.

Stoking even more rage—or rather placing the rage in historical context—has been the continuous comparisons made between the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, murdered recently by a neighborhood watchman of a majority White gated community in Florida who is claiming self-defense, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago native murdered by Mississippi segregationists in 1955 for speaking “inappropriately” to a White woman.

A blog in The New Yorker on the Martin tragedy was entitled “Emmett Till in Sanford.” Hundreds of protesters gathered at a park in Sanford, Fla., on March 22, and dozens of them sported t-shirts with Martin’s photo next to a Till photo. These Martin-Till shirts have become widely popular among activists around the nation.

Syracuse professor Boyce Watkins wrote that Martin “has become a modern day Emmett Till.” University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill insightfully compared Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, to Mamie Mae Till, who courageously allowed an open casket funeral and circulated pictures of her son’s tattered face around the world. Mamie Till’s public fight to get justice for her son is one of the untold sparks of the Civil Rights Movement.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson dismissed the “facile comparison” as “a disservice to history—and the memory of both young men. It is ridiculous to imply that nothing has changed.”

Robinson is correct and incorrect. The link is a service and disserve to history. The widely touted comparison of Martin to Till is profound and “facile.”  (more…)

Are drill sergeants an improvement on prisons?

By Alan Bean

As a group, criminals are deeply alienated from mainstream society.  They are more likely to have mental health issues, to be drug addicted, to be high school dropouts and to have severe learning disabilities than the average person.  Moreover, as David Kennedy argues in Don’t Shooteven when jobs programs are available “not many street guys come forward, not that many can stick with the social-service programs designed to help them, not many can make it even when they really try.  They’re heavily compromised in awful ways: They have appalling criminal records, street attitudes that are hard to shake, they’re shocky, they have terrible work habits.”

Are there exceptions?  Certainly.  Thousands of them.  But public policy is driven by the normal case, and that isn’t very encouraging.  On the other hand, prison normally makes things worse.  Prisons didn’t work as reformatories back in the day when reformation was a serious concern, and they are much worse now that we have decided to warehouse inmates.  When ex-offenders return to the free world, they are walled in by restrictions that would force the most capable and motivated person to throw in the towel.

What are the alternatives?  Some people need to be in prison.  They’re dangerous.  But what about the majority of inmates who aren’t violent?  Can’t we find a more creative response to street crime than prison and felon disenfranchisement? (more…)

Kids left behind: Mass incarceration and the impact on U.S. children

By Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

When we talk about mass incarceration in the United States, we often focus on the problematic effect it has on those who are imprisoned within the system.  But the consequences of mass incarceration reach far beyond the 2.3 million Americans who are currently behind bars.  When one person is sent to prison, that person and everyone in his or her social world — parents, siblings, spouses, kids — feel the impact.

When children lose a parent to incarceration, the results can be devastating.

According to a recent report by Sadhbh Walshe of The Guardian, there are currently 10 million children in the United States with a parent who has been in prison or on parole or probation.  The majority of these children are children of color.  Among black children, 1 in 5 has a parent in prison.  By contrast, only 1 in 111 white children has an incarcerated parent.  As a result, mass incarceration has become one of the primary forces driving unequal outcomes for poor children of color.  As Walshe points out:

“These children are often deeply traumatized by the experience.  Their school work suffers, they can become emotionally withdrawn or aggressively act out.  The negative consequences tend to be exacerbated if they are unable to maintain meaningful contact with the parent they love while he or she is in prison.”

A report by the Sentencing Project revealed that kids of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, have disciplinary problems, and become incarcerated themselves.  Moreover, these children often lose contact with their incarcerated parents.  As of 2004, 59% of state inmates and 45% of federal inmates had never been visited by their children.  More than half of all prisoners in the U.S. are located 100-500 miles away from their homes.  This distance only makes visitation more difficult for the families of prisoners.

To reduce negative impacts on children, the Sentencing Project suggests prison programs that promote parent-child bonding, reentry assistance, and sentencing reforms that revise “tough on crime” policies that leave people locked up for excessive periods of time.  Placing prisoners closer to home and implementing better visitation policies would also help.

However, Walshe makes a great point: “Unless we stop using incarceration as a one-stop shop for all social ills, stop being “tough on crime” and start being tough on the causes of crime, it’s impossible to see how this cycle of despair will ever end.”

States decline offer from private prison corporation

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Earlier this year, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) sent letters to 48 states offering to buy their public prisons.

According to CCA’s letter, allowing the corporation to purchase and operate corrections facilities would help states “manage challenging corrections budgets” and generate millions in savings.  That may sound like a good idea to some states, but here’s the catch: States would have to sign a 20-year contract with CCA and keep correctional facilities at a 90% occupancy rate or higher.

Last month, I pointed out several serious concerns with CCA’s proposition. In addition, a report by the ACLU of Ohio revealed false advertising in CCA’s letter:

“Much of CCA’s letter was devoted to touting its recent purchase of Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut, Ohio. In 2012, the Lake Erie facility became the first publicly owned prison in the nation sold to a private prison company. While this is certainly a dubious distinction, CCA took some liberties with the facts.

Most notably was CCA’s assertion that it would save states money, which has been refuted repeatedly. While CCA claims it will save Ohioans $3 million per year, a recent report analyzing the state’s contract shows that taxpayers will actually lose money over the next 20 years. Of course, this is not earth-shattering news, as other fiscal analyses in Ohio and Arizona have produced similar results.”

Thankfully, several states have already declined CCA’s offer. Although the states refused to say why, California, Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee all rejected the proposition. According to Greg Bluestein with the Associated Press, this may be “a sign that privatizing prisons might not be as popular as it once was.”

Let’s hope that Bluestein is right and that more states will reject CCA’s offer.

Former narcotics cop: “End the drug war, spend money on schools instead.”

In the New York Times opinion piece below, former narcotics cop Neill Franklin discusses the need to end mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs. Franklin, now the executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, was a police officer for 34 years with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department. Alan and I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Franklin speak at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference this February. MWN

Spend Money on Schools Instead

by Neill Franklin

If we have any hope of healing the deep wounds of race in this country, we’ve first got to stop the bleeding caused by mass incarceration and the other ill effects of the failed “war on drugs.”

Thanks to our ramped up “war on drugs,” when I walk in my old neighborhood I see houses where one or both parents are behind bars or on probation or parole. It didn’t use to be that way.

Our prohibition policies, and the “us vs. the man” mentality they have caused in our communities, have badly damaged how young black men are perceived — and not just by white people. As an African-American narcotics cop in Baltimore, even I fell victim to fear and apprehension when I encountered a group of black teenagers on the street. Making drugs like marijuana illegal has made them incredibly lucrative, and it’s not hard to see why many teenagers choose to enlist in the dope game and play for the chance at moving up the chain and raking in tax-free money rather than donning a McDonald’s uniform.

Even if our drug policies aren’t successful in reducing drug use, they are successful in turning whole communities into criminals. Nearly one in three black men can expect to spend time behind bars. For many black teenagers, getting arrested is a rite of passage.

But it wasn’t always this way. (more…)