While growing up as a middle-class white preacher’s kid in the Midwest, I had the immense good fortune not to have to worry about jail or prison. I knew my father visited incarcerated persons, but otherwise it was completely removed from my experience.
I was astonished to realize how profoundly dehumanized prisoners are on a daily basis.
I did not set foot in a prison until I was in my 30s and accompanied one of my colleagues at the General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) on a visit to the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. We were escorted by the prison psychologist who was working with a group of inmates attempting to set up a halfway house for recent released prisoners. These inmates had contacted GBCS for assistance.
I was astonished to realize how profoundly dehumanized prisoners are on a daily basis. Images from that visit remain with me many years later, even though I know that particular prison is now closed. So, it was with great interest that I recently read In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment & Deliverance by Wilbert Rideau.
Sentenced to death row
Rideau had a hard childhood exacerbated by the fact that he was black, poor and living in Louisiana in the 1940s and 1950s. When he was 19, he committed a stupid bank robbery that resulted in the murder of an employee. Consequently, Rideau was sentenced to death row, becoming an inmate of Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison.
Just last month, three Angola death-row inmates filed suit in federal court complaining about the extreme heat conditions in the prison. The suit alleges, among other things, that drinking water is contaminated and shower water temperature at times exceeds 115 degrees.
As a result, Rideau repeatedly was passed over for parole.
Rideau educated himself in prison through an intensive program of reading and reflection. He became editor of the prison newspaper, The Angolite, and earned national fame for his exposes of prison conditions.
As a result, Rideau repeatedly was passed over for parole when many others who had committed murder were released for good behavior. It was not until 2005 that he won his freedom thanks to assistance of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and others.
Rideau’s story provides an illuminating insight into the tragic realities of the vast archipelago of the U.S. prison-industrial complex. As the United States has imprisoned ever-more people, mostly young men of color, millions have been consigned to lives of despair in the overwhelmed U.S. criminal-justice system.
The racism endemic to this system plays itself out in many other ways through American society, as well. An Urban Institute report finds that the average white family has about $632,000 in wealth; Hispanic/Latino families have $110,000; and black families have $98,000.
The gap between whites and racial minorities is exhibited in all kinds of practices. For example, in the District of Columbia, where GBCS is headquartered, there is a high level of income inequality. You are twice as likely to live in a neighborhood with lots of trees if you live in a white neighborhood.
Several years ago, a Princeton sociologist found that white men with criminal records were more likely to get job interviews than black men with the same qualifications and no criminal record.
Interestingly, black, white and Hispanic drivers are equally likely to be pulled over for traffic stops.But blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be searched and arrested. Whites get better deals on new car purchases, homes and insurance. The inequalities go on and on, too frequently contributing to those caught in their insidious grip to commit crimes that lead to incarceration — a truly tragic cycle of despair.
United Methodist Social Principles
The United Methodist Social Principles declare support for measures “designed to remove the social conditions that lead to crime.”
“In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable,” the Social Principles “urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal-justice officials and the community as a whole.”
There is indeed a significant difference between “restorative” justice and “retributive” justice, which characterizes most criminal justice systems around the world, not just in the United States. “Through God’s transforming power, restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families and the community,” according to our Social Principles.
We, as disciples of Christ, are transformed ourselves when we become agents of healing and systemic change. Surely anyone can see that something is not working when nearly 30,000 inmates in California state prisons refuse to eat — which they have done for three days straight at this writing — to protest prison conditions. The protest was not isolated. It reached 33 prisons in state and four out-of-state where California sends prisoners. This is the second time in two years that such a protest has erupted.
Christ came to change the world. I pray that as Christ’s disciples we offer willing hands to achieve that change, and forever erase injustice from this world.