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Sabbath Day – U.S. Mass Incarceration

February 25, 2016

There will be no Sabbath Day for me this week, so I am grateful for the hours I have found here and there to read.

The congregation I serve is currently studying Michelle Alexander’s powerful book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which has given me the opportunity to re-read this powerful work. We have taken this on as a Lenten Discipline of “remembering what we never knew,” to use the words of womanist ethicist Katie Cannon. Within my lifetime, the United States has authorized an expansion of our prison system unprecedented in history, largely driven by Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs and targeted at people of color. I would call the War ill-conceived, but Alexander makes a persuasive case that it was well-conceived to re-institute racial caste in this country – even as we officially sought to abide by a creed of colorblindness. We currently incarcerate 2.3 million Americans, thought this number does not include those bound by the open-air prison of probation and parole, let alone those traumatized or intimidated by the “corrections” system. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing all other developed countries and surpassing the most repressive regimes. The growth of our prisons bears no relationship to violent crime rates or crime prevention, but overwhelmingly targets people of color and confines them to a second-class status stripped of many rights the rest take for granted. Our congregation has only just begun our discussion, but it has been an eye-opening, and anger filled, experience. As we continue, I am re-reading this book slowly and out-loud for my wife, and it is ten times as devastating to read this way. This is spiritual work that will not leave us unchanged. Thanks be to God.


My reading of multi-national literature brought me last week to a prison in the Philippines in the last days of the Marcos regime. This week I linger with our own prisons. I am working my way through Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better by Truth-out Editor-in-Chief Maya Schenwar. Documenting stories of prisoners and their families, including her own, Schenwar shows how the prison-industrial complex destroys families and communities and makes us all less safe. Through this book I have discovered Between the Bars, a blog featuring the human and humane writings of the currently incarcerated.

I will be on this theme for a few weeks as part my Lenten journey, because the very idea of prison literature has fired my imagination – again. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tolstoy, Adam Michnik, Nelson Mandela, John Bunyan, Aleksandr Solzenhitzen, the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X,  Martin Luther and John Knox, Ken Saro Wiwa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Dan Berrigan, and on, and on. I am humbled and appalled (and surprised by my surprise) by the presence of prison-lit on my book shelves. I welcome your own reflection on prison and literature. This will be a very interesting Lent.


I have donated to my church library several books by Mumia Abu-Jamal, an innocent man who has sat on death row in Pennsylvania for more than 35 years. His writing is illegal, yet he willingly suffers “correction” in order to share the truth about what one member of the congregation I serve calls our “injustice system.” I have kept one of these volumes, Death Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience on my coffee table this week to peruse in quiet moments.


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