One Sunday afternoon in March, over 100 people from all over the Boston area gathered at First Parish Cambridge UU to hear from the folks who are on the front lines of the struggle of “Ending the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration and the Restoration of Human Dignity.” We were very excited to have these faith and community leaders join us as we grapple with the issues raised by Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, which is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Common Read for this year. Earlier in the day, Rev. Fred Small also delivered a moving sermon at our worship service on The New Jim Crow.
“[M]ass incarceration,” Alexander writes, “operates with stunning efficiency to sweep people of color off the streets, lock them in cages, and then release them into an inferior second-class status.” While well aware that racism operates in many different ways in the criminal justice system, Alexander focuses on its impact on black men in particular.
Alexander explains that no country in the world incarcerates a greater proportion of its racial or ethnic minorities than the United States. A higher percentage of our black population is in prison than was the black population of South Africa at the height of apartheid. More than half of young black men in our big cities are under the control of the justice system or have criminal records; in some cities, it’s 80 percent. Rather than rehabilitating and reintegrating convicts into society, the justice system is a forced march into a netherworld of racial stigma and permanent marginalization.
“We have not ended racial caste in America;” Alexander charges, “we have merely redesigned it.”
Each of the panelists enhanced our understanding of the issue of mass incarceration and what we can do about it. Rev. George Walters-Sleyon from the Center for Church and Prison called mass incarceration a humanitarian crisis and pointed out how a disproportionate percentage of African Americans and Latinos are incarcerated or under the control of the criminal justice system. Then, Barbara Dougan from Families Against Mandatory Minimums demonstrated with cans and soup packets the small amount of drugs for which people are given lengthy prison sentences under the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Money and resources go into keeping nonviolent people in prison when it could be better spent on drug rehabilitation programs. Additionally, no rehabilitation, treatment, or employment assistance is offered during or after prison–perpetuating the problem and leading to recidivism.
Rev. Paul Robeson Ford of Union Baptist Church spoke eloquently about how mass incarceration has been a very intentional strategy for, as he put it, “dealing with Black men” in the post-Jim Crow era – hence the New Jim Crow. He asked people to think about what it does to a family when there are three generations of men incarcerated at one time. He implored people to understand this reality as a moral issue that people of faith must address.
When asked about the links between the mass incarceration of people of color and the detention of undocumented persons in the United States, Rev. Walters related his own story of riding a bus through New York State when border guards boarded the bus and demanded he prove that he was not “illegal.” In spite of having a Massachusetts driver’s license and other identification, he was held in jail for five days for no apparent reason. At the time, he overheard one of the prison guards saying that keeping people in the jail was providing his employment. Thus, we see that these issues are complex and interwoven.
All of the panelists agreed that we need to work together in whatever way we can to stop this injustice. So what can we do? Check out Standing on the Side of Love’s action page to get involved.
Later that week, members of our congregation’s Social Justice Council joined a rally at the State House with our Standing on the Side of Love signs to protest the use of dogs to patrol visitors at Massachusetts prisons. They are intimidating grandparents, spouses, friends, and even children. Rev. Walters and others cited the use of dogs against civil rights protestors and the feelings that are evoked for people of color when they come to the prisons and are confronted with men in uniforms and dogs. The dogs find little contraband and have a chilling effect on family visitors. Yet, it has been documented that the recidivism rate is much lower for prisoners who receive regular visits from family and friends.
While confronting the realities of mass incarceration is devastating, the antidote is solidarity. At First Parish we are building partnerships, creating caring community, and standing on the side of love. Will you join us?
Susan Shepherd is the Vice Chair of the Standing Committee of First Parish Cambridge UU. She is also a member of the congregation’s Transformation Team.