I am increasingly convinced that a major point of focus for Christians who believe in peace and nonviolence should be the end of the prison system as we know it today in America.
As an attorney and a minister I have had the experience of visiting many prisons and jails. A lot of county jails in several states (Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Arkansas and Georgia), but also a few state prisons, military prisons, and even the notorious Supermax Federal prison in Florence, Colorado.
At none of these institutions did I see any positive change happening. A rare few found ways to “subvert the experience” (my favorite was a prisoner who started a study group of Civil Disobedience by Thoreau?), others just did their best to stay sane and get through it, but most it was a brutalizing and disturbing experience. They came away from prison with a profound distrust of all government authority, a hatred of our political system, and often the personal training in how to commit crimes by other inmates. And more than a few came away with physical and mental injuries from their time behind bars.
This is why I don’t believe in prisons.
I understand that there is a very, very small subset of prisoners who are truly dangerous and who must truly be separated from the rest of society, but the rest should not be there. They might need good drug rehab, or counseling or just a good job or a supportive family or church community, but they do not need jail.
And for that 5% – those who are truly dangerous – there is no reason to treat them like animals. Those who are dangerous will not be made less so by further brutalization, but rather by showing them some kindness and mercy.
Right now I’m thinking about a classmate of mine from elementary and middle school in Newcastle, Oklahoma -Jimmy Lokey.
Jimmy was a troubled kid. He was the only kid in my Middle school who smoked so he got the nickname “Smokey Lokey,” but he wasn’t a bad kid. I remember him as someone who lived in my neighborhood and who wanted to be my friend. I was scared of him though (after he was a “rough kid” who smoked) so I wasn’t very receptive to his overtures of friendship. And then he disappeared and didn’t give him much thought until Senior year of high school when I heard rumors that he had “killed a cab driver in Tulsa and was facing murder charges.”
I didn’t believe it until years later when I searched for his name online and found the whole story. After his time in Newcastle (which I later learned through press coverage of his trial was a horrificly abusive childhood), he had ran away and was caught up in the juvenile justice in several states before having escaped yet again to Tulsa. It was there that he made friends with a much older man. The two of them decided that they would call for a cab driver and then rob the driver to get money to buy drugs. The robbery didn’t go well and the driver was shot and killed in Osage County (in the Tulsa metro). Jimmy and his “friend” were tried for murder and Jimmy took a plea deal to avoid the death penalty. Despite the court knowing about his horrific childhood, Jimmy was given a sentence of life without parole.
And as far as I know, Jimmy’s abusive family were never prosecuted for their crimes again.
Everyone in Newcastle knew Jimmy had a rough home life. It was obvious that things were bad for him, but nothing was ever really done on his behalf, and so he was caught up in the system and again shown only roughness and cruelty. He desperately needed love and kindness but that is not what he received. And then in the end, after a string of bad decisions by him (while still a juvenile I should add — he was certified as an adult for his trial but he commited his crime at age 17), our society decided to throw him away and there he remains.
I hope and pray of course that maybe he has found some real friends in jail and maybe some love too but I’m not holding my breath. He will be turning 40 in a couple of months (see http://docapp065p.doc.state.ok.us/servlet/page?_pageid=394&_dad=portal30&_schema=PORTAL30&doc_num=226958&offender_book_id=118592&imageindex=1 ) and all I can think about is what a waste. His family failed him. Our community in Oklahoma failed him. Our state and nation failed him. Yes, of course, he did a terrible, terrible thing, but would he have done this terrible thing if he had not been abused?
I don’t think so.
He has spent more than half of his life in prison but does it make anything better. I doubt it has done much to improve his life, and it certainly doesn’t bring back
And that is why I don’t believe in prisons. We recycle our metal, plastic and glass, letting those materials find new lives in new products. Why can’t we show the same dignity to our fellow human beings? Why can’t we believe that they could be different?
I’m not a Pollyana. I have met some bad, bad people in my work as an attorney. I know there are some truly dangerous people out there. But I also know that those folks do not become monsters in a vaccuum, and that even those people CAN CHANGE.
And there are plenty of other people who are not dangerous, people who have committed no real crime. People like Chelsea Manning (the US Army whistleblower who leaked materials to Wikileaks), who should be given medals not prison, or the thousands upon thousands in prison for nonviolent drug offenses.
It is for all of these people that I say that it is time to nonviolently tear down the walls of our prisons and set the captives free. Our systems are rotten to the core.
My wife and I do our best to teach our son good values, the most important of them being that “people are the most important thing.” Why won’t our society see this?
When will we wake up to the fact that more than 2.2 MILLION people (more than the population of any one of 16 different states – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territories_by_population ) are in prison, the highest prison population in the world and the 2nd highest per capita in the world. We have more people in prison that China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Do these 2.2 million+ people count?