The United States has the second-highest rate of incarceration in the world: higher than Cuba, higher than Russia and higher than Iran. As of 2011, there were over 2.2 million people incarcerated in America, nearly one percent of resident adults. There are millions more on probation and parole. Furthermore, data from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) states that “more than half of prisoners serving sentences of more than a year in federal facilities were convicted of drug offenses.”
These facts yield considerable public scrutiny, especially in light of renewed debate surrounding our nation’s criminal justice system. They raise important questions about principles of justice, equality and liberty.
With this in mind, Wheaton College has turned its attention to the issue of mass incarceration.
Over the past two weeks, the Center for Urban Engagement (CUE) and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) hosted two events on the subject, featuring filmmaker Dawn Porter and social scientist Dr. Michael Leo Owens.
Porter, who won the 2014 Ridenhour Award for her documentary “Gideon’s Army,” spoke in Barrows Auditorium on Feb. 12 about America’s heightened rate of incarceration and the plight of public defenders. She centered her talk on the “war on drugs,” claiming that America’s tight drug legislation lies at the crux of the issue.
Owens delivered a lecture on “the role of faith-based community organizing” in “addressing the challenge of mass incarceration” on Feb. 17. The event was sponsored by CUE. Owens, who teaches political science at Emory University, titled his lecture after Luke 4:18: “To proclaim freedom for the prisoners.”
The Record corresponded with Wheaton alumni and former student chaplain Matthew Vega about America’s criminal justice system and the influence of drug legislation on urban communities. Vega graduated in 2013 with a BITH degree, and now works with at-risk youth in the Chicagoland region.
“As a black and brown man, I became all too familiar with this social ill that strangles the lives of poor communities of color,” Vega wrote in an email. “Its victims were members of my family. This social problem is of tremendous importance to me as I currently have a brother who is incarcerated for fifteen years; a father who is a CPD police officer in the Gang Unit; and I have personally been subjected to poor policing and judicial discrimination growing up in poor communities of color my entire life.”
Based on what Porter explained in her lecture, Vega’s experience is not uncommon, as mass incarceration disproportionately affects communities of color.
While “white Americans are most likely to use most illicit drugs (specifically marijuana, cocaine, and LSD),” she said, Americans of color are significantly more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug-related crimes.
Professor of anthropology Brian Howell remarked: “The way that the so-called war on drugs has been prosecuted, the way that it’s been implemented, and the way that federal money has been used to support it has created present conditions of inequality. And it’s very direct.”
“Prisons in America are overwhelmed with black and brown bodies, primarily for minor drug offenses,” Vega added “The age of mass incarceration carries with it every tool of stigmatization that the era of Jim Crow did.”
“Mass incarceration (also) has an historical precedent,” Vega continued. “America’s ‘war on drugs’ disproportionately targeted poor communities of color on every level of the judicial system: the courts, sentencing, legal representation, interaction with the police, etc.”
The effect is particularly evident when considering the role of public defenders, Porter explained. Due to the sheer volume of criminal cases, public defenders routinely cover 120-180 cases at a time. This often leads to inadequate representation for those faced with criminal charges.
Porter’s film “Gideon’s Army,” which follows the life of three public defenders in the American south, examines this issue.
In Owens’ lecture, he shared concerns about the quality and scope of our prison system.
“Unless we reduce the punitiveness and population of the criminal corrections system, making it more merciful and less degrading, we will continue to see high rates of recidivism and exacerbated rates of racial, class, and spatial disparities in the United States,” Owens said.
Additionally, Owens focused on reframing the conversation in terms of “imprisonment” instead of “incarceration.”
“Incarceration focuses on the physical walled off institutions,” Owens said, “Imprisonment broadens our lense to include restricting movement by hindering mobility and bounded liberty.” Owens cited “voting rights restrictions,” “bans against the receipt of cash assistance of poor people for food,” and “limits on attaining friendships and even families” as a result of government “policies that restrict the political, social, and civil rights of our imprisoned.”
According to associate professor of political science Larycia Hawkins, such restrictive policies are deeply connected to our rhetoric.
“There’s a direct correlation between how we talk about people and the kinds of policies we get as a result,” Hawkins said. “I think (our country) has framed criminals as nonhuman, as deviant, as some other category or class of people. So when they get out (of prison), it’s easy to say, ‘You can’t vote.’ It’s easy to say ‘you don’t deserve welfare.’ It’s easy to say, ‘Despite what we say about the American dream, you don’t get to start over– because you’re not actually human, you’re less than human.”’
For Owens, religious institutions and communities of faith are central to framing a resolution.
“I believe that communities of faith, especially Christians, are vital to ending or at least reducing the punitiveness of criminal correction and the degradation of the incarcerated and the decarcerated in the United States,” he said.
The church has an affirmative role to play in dignifying people created in God’s images–period,” Hawkins added.
“Just as the civil rights movement confronted Jim Crow, we can confront mass incarceration,” said Howell.
For students interested in learning more about issues of mass incarceration and criminal justice, Dr. Harold Dean Trulear will be speaking for the African American Church Lectureship on Wednesday Feb. 25 in Blanchard 339 at 7 P.M. Trulear works as director of the healing communities prison ministry and prison reentry project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation. He will also be speaking in chapel.
Additionally, CUE is sponsoring a paper competition on the topic of “mass incarceration.” Submissions are due March 27, and CUE will award one cash prize of $300.
Associate professor of urban studies and politics and international relations Noah Toly also mentioned several organizations that students who are interested can get involved with, such as the nondenominational nonprofit mission:usa and coffee brand “I Have a Bean.” Likewise, Toly noted that there are various “community organizing and advocacy efforts that students can join with all along the metro area.”
That said, Vega recommended that “students at Wheaton… look deep into the problem before suggesting solutions to fix the problem.” Particularly, he recommended students read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” which both speakers cited in their lectures.
“God is on a mission,” said Vega, “His mission is to restore justice to a world that slanders its name on a daily basis and to establish his Kingdom.”
“We are (God’s) New Covenant People,” continued Vega, “empowered by the holy spirit to ‘preach the gospel to the poor’, ‘proclaim release to the captives’, ‘recovery of sight to the blind’, ‘set free those who are oppressed’, and ‘proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.’”
“(God) didn’t give up on the world he created. But rather, he pursued it in love and sought justice and peace for it relentlessly. We should too.”