Monday, February 28, 2011

Sermon - "Trapping the Human Spirit"

Trapping the Human Spirit
My experience in jail was short, but it left a lasting impression. In my early twenties I was arrested for trespassing. I was with a group of around fifty people who gathered to block the exit to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. That’s sort of like their General Assembly. Thousands of United Methodists had gathered to vote on the business of their faith tradition, and we were protesting one of those votes in regard to gays in the church. Our slogan was “No exit without justice,” so we blocked the exit until they voted for more inclusion of GLBT people in the church.
The details of why we were there are not important today. What is important is what came next. We were all arrested and sent off to the local jail. Being arrested for civil disobedience with renowned civil-rights activists is a fundamentally different thing from being arrested under any other circumstance. Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi was in a jail cell across the hall from me. And James Lawson, who worked directly with MLK as a strategist during the Civil Rights era was in the cell next to mine. This was no ordinary jail experience. And still what I experienced there will never be forgotten.
In the six hours that I spent in jail, my thoughts raced. We were arrested on Friday morning and there was some question if we would all be processed and released before the court closed for the weekend. The jail cell was stark cinderblock. I remember the one meal we were served was a bologna and cheese sandwich on white bread. That was it. As a young college student who was used to having agency over my own destiny, this short time of confinement was utterly foreign to me. I was prepared, I was treated with reasonable respect, and still the experience of jail was one of complete disempowerment.
My short experience in jail was one I will never forget. You can do nothing for yourself, nothing. You can’t make a phone call, choose the food you will eat, choose what clothing you will wear. There are no choices, nothing to do for yourself but sit and wait for the person in charge to tell you what to do next.
Today we are talking about America’s prison industry and how it traps the human spirit. But not just the spirit of those incarcerated. It traps the spirit of our county, as all of us are complicit in the structure, and all of us reap the results of a system built on revenge rather than rehabilitation.

Before we dive into the challenges of the prison industry today, I think it’s important that we get a sense of this history that brought us here.
Incarceration has not always been a common form of punishment. Corporal punishment, forced labor, and social ostracism were far more common forms of punishment in the ancient world, medieval Europe, and even in England and colonial America. But that changed in the 18th Century For the first time the idea emerged that restricting a person's liberty would itself be significant punishment for crime, and that a measured amount of time served could be assigned in proportion to the severity of the crime.
Most laws in colonial America were based on religious law. So, the first prisons in the independent United States were established as "penitentiaries.” Their prisoners were considered religious "penitents," serving time for their sins. These early jails gained a lot of positive attention for their high goals of perfecting society through incarceration. But despite their high moral aims, they soon became as overcrowded, dirty, and dangerous European dungeons.
By the late 19th Century, outrage over prison conditions led to the "reformatory" movement, which attempted to redefine prison's role as that of "reforming" inmates into model citizens, by providing education, work, and counseling.
A 1930s building wave of rural institutions where the setting was assumed to help rehabilitate prisoners, such as San Quentin and Sing-sing, saw a major increase in the size of individual facilities, leading to the nickname "Big House."
In the 1970s judges became more receptive to claims of prisoners' rights, and they began to mandate significant improvements in many conditions for prisoners. But those new standards ran head on with the new crimes, sentencing laws, and prison population explosion of the "War on Drugs." Resources intended for rehabilitation went to drug law enforcement. New prison construction intended to reduce overcrowding and improve the chances of rehabilitation were barely complete before they were filled to capacity with drug offenders. From the 1980s on, prisons have been built in increasingly remote locations and loaded with increasingly harsh rules and intentionally harsh conditions.

American prisons have a two hundred year history of well-meaning but short-lived attempts at reform. Today they are undisputedly over crowded, dangerous, and fundamentally lacking in meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation.
Today, the United States currently has the largest inmate population in the world, with more than 2½ million prisoners, that is more than one in a hundred adults in prison and jails in the United States. Among industrialized nations, the United States incarcerates the largest percentage of its population. The U.S. incarceration rate is five to ten times that of other democracies.

We have a problem here and not many people are talking about it. We have a problem and more jails with more beds does not seem to be the answer. We have a problem that is so big, that I would dare to call it evil. That’s right, the sprawling prison industry in the United States is evil. There is no other word to describe a system that so quietly places such blight on our society. It is evil in two different ways.

First, there is evil in a system that dehumanizes a group of people and does it so quietly that it doesn’t raise the concern of the wider society. It is the banality of evil, a slow systematic chipping away at our society. It’s no one person’s fault, but a system has been set into motion that destroys the fabric of our society.
And evil is present in the hearts of human beings. Unfortunately much of the growth of prison industry and deliverance of harsher sentences is rooted in a desire for revenge rather than repair, punishment rather than rehabilitation. Evil marks America’s prisons in the systemic injustices and in the hard heartedness that obsesses on revenge. First I want to talk about the evil of systems.

To begin with, there are stark disparities in the racial composition of our nation's prisons. African Americans account for fully half of the prison population but they comprise only thirteen percent of the total population. I know that statistics are hard to swallow and I’m using a lot of them today. Just know that the number of Black men in prison is way, way out of proportion.
The evil is not so much in the fact that there are so many African-American’s in prison, as it is in the way that prison accentuates inequalities, ensuring the disempowerment of generation after generation.

The most well-known racially aligned injustice is political disenfranchisement of Blacks. (Ten states deny voting rights for life to ex-felons. According to the Sentencing Project, 46 states prohibit inmates from voting while serving a felony sentence, 32 states deny the vote to felons on parole, and 29 states disenfranchise felony probationers.) Most states deny voting rights to inmates, and many of them deny the right to people even after they are released from prison. Thanks to those rules, 13 percent of all Black men in the U.S. have lost their electoral rights. Let me say that again, 13 percent of Black men in the U.S. have lost their right to vote.

But the economic effects are probably even more important. Having a record is disastrous to the prospect of finding a job. Most sources cite unemployment rates as high as 50 percent for people with records. Putting it all together, we see that since incarceration rates are especially high among those with the least power in the labor market (young and unskilled minority men), and having a history of incarceration deeply impacts employment opportunity, it seams pretty clear that U.S. incarceration exacerbates the inequality present in our society.

And we should remember that the Black community has a unique history with the prison system. After two hundred years of slavery in the United States, the government of southern states contrived a plan to essentially recreate the system.

After the end of the Civil War. Farmers and businessmen needed to find replacements for the labor force. Beginning in 1868, convict leases were issued to private parties to supplement their workforce. The government contracted out prison labor to private industry. Of course any means of legal defense for Blacks during this time were negligible. Prisons and Jails in the Southern states essentially supplied an extension of slavery until the early 20th century.
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the relationship between prisons and private companies continues today, only in different form. Thanks to the privatization of prisons, there is a great deal of money to be made off of the incarceration of as many people as possible. That’s right, prisons are big business for corporations who own them.
Government has depended on private companies to provide some of the services food preparation and transportation for a long time. But in the 1980s a shift occurred. With an exploding prison population with the War on Drugs, private business interests saw an opportunity for expansion, and private-sector involvement in prisons moved from contracting of specific services to contracting for the complete management and operation of entire prisons. Private companies in the United States operate 264 correctional facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult offenders. 99,000 people are incarcerated by for-profit industry in our country.
(Of course the goal of privately run prisons it to save money. But a good amount of research questions exactly that claim. Evidence usually shows that private prisons are neither demonstably more cost-effective, nor more efficient than public ones. Yet still State and Federal tax money funneled toward private corporations to run OUR prisons.)
I can’t quite put my finger on it. I can’t quite put it into words yet, but our turning prison into an industry is deeply troubling. Addressing the wrongs committed in our society, holding dangerous people, and ideally offering an opportunity for rehabilitation should not be a money-making project. I am deeply troubled that as a society we have made an industry of incarcerating human beings. Fiscally responsible or not, privatizing American prisons is an affront to the inherent worth and dignity of our brothers and sisters.

The third and final piece of the systemic evil that shapes our prisons is the “War on Drugs.” By all measures, it has failed at everything except incarcerating more people, most of them Black men.
In 1986 the US Defense Department concluded that using armed forces to slow the production of cocaine was ineffective and would actually raise the profitability of selling it in the U.S. But we continued to pour money into the project.

(In 1986, the US Defense Department funded a two-year study by the RAND Corporation, which found that the use of the armed forces to interdict drugs coming into the United States would have little or no effect on cocaine traffic and might, in fact, raise the profits of cocaine cartels and manufacturers.)

In the early 90s a Clinton administration report found that $3 billon should be transferred from the war on drug’s law enforcement focus toward treatment, and that drug treatment was twenty-three times more effective than the supply-side (crime enforcement side) “war on drugs.”

(During the early to mid-1990s, the Clinton administration ordered and funded a major cocaine policy study, again by RAND. The Rand Drug Policy Research Center study concluded that $ 3 billion should be switched from federal and local law enforcement to treatment. The report said that treatment is the cheapest way to cut drug use, stating that drug treatment is twenty-three more times effective than the supply-side "war on drugs")

Despite over $7 billion spent annually towards arresting[95] and prosecuting nearly 800,000 people for marijuana offenses Surveys report about 85% of high school seniors find marijuana "easy to obtain." That figure has remained virtually unchanged since 1975.

I could go on with the details, but you get the picture. Federal and State government are pouring money, our money into ineffective programs based on punishment and retribution. Punishment that disproportionately impacts racial minorities and supports a multi-billion dollar industry. And yet I understand there is a marijuana club at Laguna Woods.

These three realities, privatization, the war on drugs, and racial bias are an interconnected system of oppression. They come together to in the form of systemic evil to shape the modern prison industry. There is no other word for a system that so efficiently and so quietly destroys one segment of the population while making money for another.

As I said, the evil of the sprawling prison industry is demonstrated mostly in numbers. It is an evil that can be and must be challenged through political advocacy.

But there is another type of evil lurking in this equation. It is, frankly, the evil that rests in human hearts. Too often, and I fear increasingly so, the government, our courts, our law enforcement, the entire justice system is not focused on protecting citizens or reforming criminals. It is focused on punishment and retribution. The desire for revenge is an ugly, ugly thing. We all know this feeling. In many ways we consider it a natural thing, but that does not make it right. The criminal justice system cannot be a state sanctioned means for us to seek revenge. We cannot allow our government to function in a way that encourages the anger and violence of the human heart. There is another way, and we must hold out hope for more meaningful way of dealing with our brothers and sisters who break the law. A way of justice that offers redemption.

Redemptive justice recognizes justice as relational. Its purpose is to restore wholeness and rightness in the social order and in the disposition of the offender, not to exact revenge. It is a process of education, socialization, and empowerment so that they may be able to contribute constructively to society again. Restorative justice is a process that enables the offender to reconcile with the victim through appropriate restitution, community service, and healing measures.

Separation from society may be an appropriate punishment for many crimes, but society's responsibility does not end there. A corrections system driven by compassionate justice would prepare offenders for successful reentry into society. An overwhelming majority of those who are incarcerated return to their communities having received minimal or no opportunities for rehabilitation. In a reformed system, they will receive substantial rehabilitative services, including mental health treatment, educational programs, and vocational training during incarceration and employment and transitional housing once released. Redemption, rehabilitation, and restoration are not only more humane for those who have fallen off the main societal track; they are more effective and less costly in addressing the criminal justice needs of our whole society.
Earlier we sang the song Circle ‘round for freedom. Circle ‘round for peace. For all of us imprisoned, circle for release. That’s just the idea that I want to get at today. You see the evil of the prison system is not just about those unfortunate men and women who find themselves incarcerated. We all, as tax payers, as citizens, as members of a moral community are implicated. When we allow our civic institutions to embody the values of punishment and revenge, we build those values into the fabric of who we are as a people. Prison reform is not just for those who are incarcerated. Justice is not just for the sake of the oppressed. It is for the well being of our souls. It is what we are called to seek and to build. It is what is required of us. To Circle round for freedom. Circle ‘round for peace. For ALL of us imprisoned, circle for release.
Evil in the system that dehumanizes calls for advocacy and political action, but evil in human hearts calls for deep discernment, and a type of spiritual leadership that Unitarian Universalists are well-positioned to make. But, doing so means getting serious about naming what we see. We have spent the month of February talking about evil, not just as a theology lesson, but to prepare us to understand our wider world. It is vocabulary that is important. It is essential that we pause to look at the world around us to name what is not working, so that one day we might come together to fix it.


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