The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with over 2.4 million people currently behind bars. What can Quakers do about it?
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- Laura Magnani says, “One of the definitions of sin is separation from God, and when we allow ourselves to separate ourselves from each other, we’re creating divides. And we’re creating greater brokenness.” What do you think about that definition of sin? How does this relate to our criminal justice system?
- Historically, Quakers have been very active in prison reform, from our own imprisonment in 17th-century dungeons to the advent of the “Penitentiary.” How are Friends called to engage with our prison system today?
The system we have now is based on violence. That is at the core. We give ourselves permission to be as violent to certain human beings as possible, up to and including death.
How Quakers Can Help to End Mass Incarceration
For me, mass incarceration is really over-incarceration. A system that has criminalized too many activities, and focused on a particular population to enforce that criminalization
So when I first started working on it in California at its low point—which was when Reagan was Governor of California—we were down to about 17,000 prisoners in the state prison. Now we have… we went as high as 170,000.
Targeting People of Color
It’s pretty shocking to walk inside any jail or prison in the United States and see the demographics because it’s very disproportionately people of color compared to the general population.
It’s really a system that’s designed to keep us in a state where we have no power. A system that’s really designed to keep the poor, keep those who are not accessible to resources, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the disenfranchised… and I think for Black people it goes as far back as the institution of slavery itself. It really puts the people in a place where they can’t find themselves any real… there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. They can’t find themselves free.
The Impact of Incarceration
About a week ago, I was talking to a gentleman who came home after 44 years of incarceration, and I asked him, “What are you experiencing?” and I thought he would say, “Well, I can’t get a job. I can’t do this…” But he said, “I don’t know how to cross the street.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “When I left, cars were not moving this fast.”
The realities of spending 40-plus years, for many men and women, away from the world… I just don’t know what they’re going to do. And it’s not an isolated case. We are incarcerating people, not just at high numbers, but for unbelievable periods of time.
I think there’s a tendency often for white Quakers—of which I am one—to think it doesn’t affect us in the same way as it might if we were people of color primarily, and if our own loved ones were inside. But because of the impact that it has on the economy, because of the way that its devastating our cities, because of the fact that the money spent on prisons, like the money spent on military, is draining funds from everything else we need to make us healthy. It is impacting all of us.
Impact on Families
I think another way that it’s had a tremendous impact is on the families left behind. So people forget about the fact that when we incarcerate parents, children are also in effect doing time.
Mass incarceration has created single-parent homes and will continue to create them. I’m afraid for the women in my community. The men are being taken away. And therefore, our numbers as a people are going to go down. Some people call it genocide, I’m afraid that I’m not quite there yet, but if we don’t fix it, this may prove to be a genocidal result.
And so the impact is far reaching and frightening.
A New Paradigm
One of the definitions of sin is separation from God, and when we allow ourselves to separate ourselves from each other, we’re creating divides. And we’re creating greater broken-ness. That’s what separation is, it’s broken-ness. And so what we have to be talking about is wholeness. How can we bring people back in? What would it take to restore or to create for the first time a whole and healthy and inclusive society?
We need a new paradigm. That’s what we need. And it needs to be a transformative justice paradigm that’s based on wholeness and healing and not on punishment and revenge.
An Issue of Faith
It’s really about, if you truly believe that God can be seen in all of us, then it’s incumbent upon us to make life as whole for all of us as possible, and prisons don’t do that. Criminalizing people, marginalizing people just doesn’t do that. It’s just not Quakers, all people of faith, all people of goodwill in my opinion have that responsibility… to mitigate if not eradicate those injustices.
It’s a huge imbalance in the criminal justice system. It targets Blacks, it targets poor. It targets Latinos. It’s a huge imbalance there. So our responsibility—our call to action with this whole system—is to bring true justice and real balance back into a system.
Time to Act
We as people of goodwill have allowed so much of this injustice to be done in our name that it’s our responsibility to reverse it. We have entombed justice behind “get tough on crime” policies. Punish the sinner, however you want to phrase it, and if we don’t remove that stone quickly, justice will die in that tomb.
It’s going to take a hammer and a chisel. We’re not going to be able to just roll the stone away this time. We’re going to have to chisel at it piece by piece, and I’m urging every member of any community of faith to pick up his hammer and his chisel. If it’s helping people re-enter from prison, then chisel there. If it’s really about organizing conferences, do your chiseling there. For Quakers and all of us who care, get to work.
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.