Today’s word, “time,” makes me think about doing time. The basic statistics regarding prison and corrections in the United States are staggering, let alone the human realities. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Advance numbers for 2012 from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that, while the overall prison population in the U.S. is declining slightly, an estimated 1.57 million adults were incarcerated here by last year’s end, or about 1 in 160 adults. That number does not include all other adults who are otherwise under the supervision of state and federal correctional systems (via various forms of probation and parole). By the end of 2011 that number stood at 6.98 million, or roughly 1 in 34 adults in the United States.
By way of illustration, if my (relatively meager) cohort of 438 Facebook friends was representative of the United States, three would be in prison and ten more would be under other correctional supervision.
These mushrooming numbers are especially staggering due to the fact that, in the same time period in which prison and correctional populations have exploded, violent crime (murder, assault, rape, and sexual assault) has plummeted. Many attribute this increase to the “war on drugs,” especially at the federal level. In 2011, the last year for which official statistics are available on this question, the single largest category of federal sentences– 94,600 out of 197,050— were for drug-related offenses.
These aggregate numbers, though, don’t tell the whole story. They don’t include juveniles under correctional supervision, including those in residential facilities. Nor do they include young people caught up in the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term for the trend in recent years in which increasingly harsh school discipline exposes students rapidly to the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Increasingly, the road that leads to prison for Americans begins in their classrooms.
The aggregate numbers also hide wide racial disparities, both in correctional populations and in the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Sticking only to people in prison, the BJS estimates that at the end of 2011, of 1.53 million prisoners, 581,300 were black, 349,900 were Latino/a, and the rest white (and the number for “white” includes Asian-Americans, American Indians, and individuals who identified more than one race). According to the 2010 census, around 13.6% of all Americans identified as Black or African American, and 16.3% of Americans identified as Hispanic or Latino. People of color are represented in prison populations out of all proportion to their overall numbers in the population. The cause of these disparities is hotly debated, although it is hard to resist the conclusion that the increase in sentences for drug-related offenses, which are famously racialized, has much to do with them.
The effects of mass incarceration on communities of color are tremendous, even more tremendous than official statistics indicate. Since many of those statistics, such as employment rates, are tied to household surveys, they disregard people in prisons and jails. This means that many official statistics for people of color, who are incarcerated at rates significantly higher than whites, are skewed due to the fact that larger segments of their populations are officially disregarded. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, argues compellingly that mass incarceration in the present-day United States, via a drastic expansion of police powers and criminal law in the “war on drugs” and mandatory sentencing guidelines, systematically targets and relegates large numbers of people of color to near-permanent second-class status.
These statistics and realities ought to motivate greater outcry, or at least greater discussion. They aren’t a simple matter of “crime and punishment.” In our society, incarceration and correctional supervision are a mark that is difficult to clean off, even well after jail time is done. Many states place high barriers to persons convicted of felonies to regain their voting rights. Two states, including my own home state of Kentucky, provide no means whatsoever for felons to regain their voting rights. Employers routinely ask applicants to “check the box” indicating whether they have been convicted of a felony, and many employers will automatically weed out those applicants who check “yes.” Felony convictions also bar individuals from seeking any number of professional or occupational licenses, which restricts their long-term career prospects.
Our culture treats people convicted of crimes who have done jail time as pariahs. This, sadly, tends to include church culture. Our churches talk a good game around justice and inclusion, at least sometimes, but in practice we function as little more than arbiters of solid middle-class respectability, equipping our own communities for upward mobility. Yet we Christians gather every Sunday to follow in the footsteps of an executed criminal, blissfully ignorant of the disconnect. The Christian communities whose experience is reflected in the New Testament, however, were no strangers to incarceration. The New Testament abounds in references to prison and prisoners which are impossible to explain away as figurative references to “spiritual” bondage. Yes, much of that incarceration was at the hands of imperial Rome and its collaborators. What makes our imperial incarceration practices so much better, though? Why should followers of Jesus simply assume that this time, Empire has got it right?
This Advent, I plan to take to heart the exhortation of the Epistle to the Hebrews:
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Heb. 13:3, NRSV)