Imagine What Father's Day Is Like for All the Dads and Sons in Prison

For more than ten years, in every week or two, I have spent a couple of hours in conversation and reflection with men in the prisons at Attica or Sing Sing -- men whose long years in prison have sharpened in them a desire for inner freedom not common in "the mass of men." In respect for the men I have known and for their aspirations, and because the spirit of fatherhood belongs to all who are mature, let us take advantage of this Father's Day to turn our well-wishing toward the ends for which our hearts are shaped; toward compassion for every son and every father who is in prison. And especially for black and brown men in prison.

The men I have met in prison are black, black, Latino, black, white, black, Latino, black. I would like you to see them and to feel their condition. Many have not known their fathers well. Many are determined to know and support their own children well -- and feel anguish and shame for being now far removed from their youths. Some of you are no doubt the fathers and grandfathers of men in prison, their sisters and wives and mothers, their brothers, their daughters and sons. I say this not because we feel free to tell the stories as yet, but because in 2006, one in fourteen black men was in prison versus one in 106 white men. Between the ages of 20 and 35, one of every nine black men is behind bars. One third of American black men are under the control of courts, prisons, or parole boards. These men are your sons. We are all their fathers. But America is pitiless. For the most part, the culture of the American church makes it unsafe to talk about the systematic injustice of our prison practices. The whole situation resembles the aftermath of that terrifying storm in New Orleans, when every body in the ruined waters was black and black and black, yet America would not acknowledge that the human disaster was one of edgeless racial indifference built over decades to those awful days.

This is the story of how America continues to drown its poorest black and brown men and women in poverty, violence, and sorrow. It is a tragedy without an ending. Take the case of Illinois: between 1985 and 2005, the numbers of black men sent to prison annually in Illinois jumped 2000%. In Chicago, 80% of adult black males of working age have felony records. In 1999, 992 black men graduated from all the colleges of Illinois. In the same year, seven thousand were released from prison into the hell of legal discrimination and social exile, where their debt to society is never paid, never payable. Although "free," many states will never allow a once-convicted man to vote again. "More African-Americans are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850 and more are legally disenfranchised today than in 1872, the year the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified."

Now you may think, for politicians and television have been working hard to have you think, that these awesome statistics issue from the violence and decay in the ghettoes of American cities. If you are white-washed in this national illusion, you assume prisoners of any color have only reaped the rewards of their criminal behavior, and is that not justice? But an insidious injustice is at work. In her just published book, The New Jim Crow, law professor Michelle Alexander unravels the cords that are binding our whole nation in evil. I do not attempt to back up each of her points, for a sermon has a different purpose from a lecture. I ask you to listen with your heart and to open your mind to things you have not heard. If your mind boggles at what we say, go and read this book. Then let us begin some serious talk with one another.

The mass incarceration of blacks in America is a system of racialized control -- a "racial caste system," in Alexander's words -- caused not by unusual amounts of crime among blacks, but by policies and practices in all the branches of government, driven by ambition, fear, and greed. When Ronald Reagan declared his "war on drugs" in 1982, drug use in America was at a low ebb in all communities. Only 2% of Americans then held that drug use was America's number one problem, and Reagan's declaration of war was met with surprise. But at the end of Reagan's term, not 2% but 64% of Americans thought drugs were America's greatest problem. The incidence of illegal drug use had not changed drastically. More important, the frequency of illegal drug use did not differ greatly among racial and ethnic groups -- it was and still is about 6% or 7% across white, black, and Latino populations in any given year. Yet In many states, 90% of those sent to prison for drug offenses are black or Latino.

"From the outset," Alexander writes, "the war on drugs had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race." She demonstrates that in the aftermath of the civil rights advancements of the 1960s, when blacks were no longer officially and legally inferior to poor whites, the resentment of these white voters found expression in racialized electoral politics. As early as Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, the so-called "southern strategy" exploited innuendo and image to weld the face of the black man to crime, and to couple fear and resentment with promises to crack down on crime. In local, state, and national elections, this strategy won men power. Did you know that Reagan's war meant that the federal government directly paid a bounty to police departments for every person sentenced for a drug offense? Did you know that federal law permits local municipalities to keep the money and property forfeited by every person they arrest for drugs? Did you know that through the last twenty years, the Supreme Court has invalidated all Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches, if drugs turn up?

The American policy of mass incarceration of blacks is a direct descendant of the Jim Crow laws. Alexander summarizes the hateful history this way: "Hundreds of years ago, our nation put those considered less than human in shackles; less than one hundred years ago we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in cages. Since 1985, the American prison population has grown from 350,000 to 2.3 million. We are afflicted by a blindness self-inflicted, a racial caste system which has devoured millions of lives, impoverished public coffers, and deranged our national purpose.

That unshackled man, naked and forlorn among the tombs -- if ever there was a man wanting a father, he is it. Jesus tells it like it is. This spirit of vision, clarity, and hope finally meets that man in Jesus. But first notice this. Whether for his safety or their own, the townspeople have restrained that man, says the story, "under guard and bound him with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds." But something else is hidden here, for surely shackles of some size could settle him. It fits reality better to say the town is not serious about restraining him. Deep down, they don't really want to help him or heal him. They want him out there. They need him there.

We have seen this before. It is the basic tragedy of societal exclusion, that to keep peace "in here," an entire people project their sense of evil "out there"?on the Indian, or the "evil empire," or the "axis of evil." They hold themselves innocent and ignorant of responsibility for any evil in the world, and often actually destroy the demonized "other" in exile and torment. Between the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the fall of the Twin Towers -- between the end of the Communist and the dawn of the Terrorist -- America threw more than a million black men in prison. Why? Alexander offers this. "Criminals are the one social group in America we have permission to hate."

What can this mean? With no evil man at its outskirts to carry their shadows for them, a town is dangerously out of balance. They must now own their own evil -- or force their leaders to start sweeping a legion of citizens into cages where they can be safely despised. But in Luke 8:26-29, Jesus healed the man, and he now wants to follow Jesus. In all the stories of Jesus, just this once, he refuses the would-be disciple. "Go home," he says -- "Home to your friends" in Mark's version of the story. Why would he say this?

Because healing must also be social and communal. Wherever Jesus went, this was his kingdom-come message. Healing is not complete until the whole community is restored, both those racked with resentment and fear, and those put away from home in punishment and shame.

Those of us who can see the sorrows of our society through a frame this large sense that we are ourselves called to be fathers to all brothers and sisters. The demonized man must come home, free and welcome, and our communities must deal with our own shadows. We need to become aware of the violence and greed and fear that is in ourselves. Accepting the one whom we have despised is how this must begin. "Go home."

For the man from prison, coming home is an unrelenting terror. I have seen how inhumanly alert a parolee must be to all the threats that will put him behind bars again. For most, it is not possible. In 2000, as many people were returned to prison for parole violations as had been put in prison for all reasons combined just twenty years earlier! We are drowning in the sea of our own wrong-doing, carried by a tide of racial indifference to the suffering of millions in this system -- of whom by far the majority are men of color who have broken drug laws for which white people are not held accountable, laws whose aggressively punitive character is seen nowhere else in the developed world. Read the book. You will weep like a father whose son has been taken hostage by violent, unruly men.

Where is there a good news message in this tragic, painful story? When I was twenty or so, the only homosexuals I encountered were men I'd call desperate. They cruised in cars offering money for pleasures at the edge of town. I felt disgust for them all. Within a decade, that scene was changing. Gay men -- couples! -- were proud. My understanding changed wholly, along with many, many others.' That the change had to do with human connections, with coming to know the person on the other side of the label. We met "them." We welcomed them home from exile. "They" and "we" became a new and truer "we."

This is how a community heals and develops the courage to confront yet more of its conflicts and injustices. But where do you meet men out of prison? Not in church, mostly. In this nation so eager to call on the name of Jesus, why is the spirit of compassion closed to the formerly incarcerated?

To the man who had demons, Jesus says, "Go home to your friends." People of all faiths need to find ways to say to those who have been in prison, Come home, friend. Churches have ample resources and reasons to open their heart and their ear and their hand to receive people home from prison. Certainly they need "us" to do this. Equally certainly, we need to learn to do this for our own healing and growth. A new and truer "we" must come home. Michelle Alexander reminds her reader that in the year he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. was calling forth from Americans a "complete restructuring" of their heart and their conscience. This can only begin with intention in that number who have ears to hear. Let us pursue that day when "Happy Father's Day" is a happier day for every father and every father's son. Let us bring this alive in committed conversations about race and racism -- about the people we must become, the people we shall become, the people who are Home to friends we have never yet seen.

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