09 February 2009

A Reflection for Criminal Justice Sunday

Annie Rawlings, M.Div.

Interim Associate Executive Presbyter for Social Witness

Presbytery of New York City

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

1Praise theSoverieign

How good it is to sing praises to our God;

for s/he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.

2The Sovereign builds up Jerusalem;

s/he gathers the outcasts of Israel.

3 S/he heals the brokenhearted,

and binds up their wounds.

4S/he determines the number of the stars;

s/he gives to all of them their names.

5Great is our God, and abundant in power;

God’s understanding is beyond measure.

6The Sovereign lifts up the downtrodden;

s/he casts the wicked to the ground.

7Sing to the Sovereign with thanksgiving;

make melody to our God on the lyre.

8S/he covers the heavens with clouds,

prepares rain for the earth,

makes grass grow on the hills.

9S/he gives to the animals their food,

and to the young ravens when they cry.

10 God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse,

nor is God’s pleasure in the speed of a runner;

11but the Sovereign takes pleasure in those who fear God,

in those who hope in God’s steadfast love.

20aPraise the Sovereign!

For many years, the second Sunday in February has been “Criminal Justice Sunday” in the PCUSA – although the designation seems to have disappeared from PCUSA calendars and materials. Some of us concerned with Criminal Justice here in New York City have tried to learn what happened: our best guess is that references to this special Sunday were dropped when the national church decided it would no longer employ staff to work on Criminal Justice. As people of faith we cannot let awareness about Criminal Justice issues, and the great needs for ministry and advocacy, become muted within the church. We are in the midst of a crisis. There is an epidemic of incarceration in the United States where roughly one out of every 100 adults is in prison. This is a greater percentage of population in prison than exists in any other country in the world. Really…more than any other country in the world!

What is the relationship, one might ask, between Criminal Justice Sunday and Presbyterian Welcome? Not, let me be clear, because of anything having to do with “criminality.” Absolutely not. The link lies in the all-too-familiar dynamics of marinalization and exclusion in the United States that continue to challenge our national rhetoric about equality and democracy. Patterns of incarceration reflect historic systems of marginalization in the U.S., chief among them: racism, poorly functioning (and poorly funded) schools, and economic injustice. One example: racism has been dramatically evident in the “war on drugs.” According to the Correctional Association of New York: “Studies have shown that the majority of people who use and sell drugs in New York State and the nation are white. Yet 90% of the people doing time in New York State prisons for a drug offense are African-American or Latino.” The report goes on to say: “The problem – at least partially a function of having the Rockefeller Drug Laws in place – is that law enforcement efforts focus almost entirely on inner city communities of color.” (Say No To 35 Years of Injustice: Policy Paper Urging New York State Leaders to Repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Correctional Association of New York, May 2008, p. 4)

Enacted in 1973, when Nelson Rockefeller was Governor of New York, the Rockefeller Drug Laws require harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. The penalties apply without regard to the circumstances of the offense or the individual's character or background. Whether the person is a first-time or repeat offender, for instance, is irrelevant. It is important to note that changes to the laws passed in December 2004 and August 2005 do not amount to meaningful reform. The most severe aspects of these laws are still on the books. Mandatory sentencing provisions remain intact, meaning that judges still do not have discretion in deciding whether to send someone to prison or to an appropriate alternative-to-incarceration program. Prison terms, though reduced, remain unduly long – for example, under the new system, instead of 15 years to life, the most serious provision of the drug laws carries a determinate (or flat) sentence of between eight and 20 years for first-time, non-violent offenders. (Say No to 35 Years of Injustice, p. 2)

Anyone who has been marginalized by society. Anyone who has been targeted by society. Anyone who is a member of a group upon whose backs people try to lay blame and punishment related to vague notions of social worry can understand what it means to be caught in the sights of a relentless social project that is looking for enemies to capture and punish. In the case of prisons, reform advocates have labeled this project the “Prison Industrial Complex.” I hope that sympathy and empathy will yield solidarity: for action to reform the prison system, to reform sentencing and parole policies, and to address the grevious inequalities that place, in particular, young people of color squarely in the bull’s eye of an escalating national tragedy. (The Presbytery of New York City’s Prison/Reentry Working Group has compiled Take A Next Step – a resource for education, ministry, and advocacy – email me for a copy: socialwitness@presbynyc.org.)

And I hope we can all draw on the best of our theological understanding, and the best strengths gleaned from whatever suffering any of us has endured, to remember that within the human family the question of how we stay family after we have hurt each other is one of the principal challenges of community. There are people in prison who have caused harm – sometimes deadly harm. We have ALL hurt someone. We have hurt each other through exclusion. We have hurt each other through scapegoating. We have hurt each other through a tolerance for poverty around the world and close to home. We have hurt each other through any number of things we have done or not done. The need for confession is upon us ALL. The need for reconciliation is before us ALL. We must not let people in prison become the “demonized other” upon whom we project the shadows of our own impulses towards violence of greater or lesser degree. We instead must connect with the humanity of people in prison, and who have been in prison, from that place in each of us that wants to be part of the whole, that wants to feel worthy, that wants a chance, that longs to experience the dignity associated with being a child of God, and longs to have that dignity affirmed by others.

2The Sovereign builds up Jerusalem;

s/he gathers the outcasts of Israel.

3 S/he heals the brokenhearted,

and binds up their wounds.

4S/he determines the number of the stars;

s/he gives to all of them their names.

5Great is our God, and abundant in power;

God’s understanding is beyond measure.

1 comment:

Ahma Daeus said...

A “SINGLE VOICE PROJECT” is the official name of the petition sponsored by: The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP)


The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) is a grass roots organization driven by a single objective. We want the United States government to reclaim sole authority for state and federal prisons on US soil.
We want the United States Congress to immediately rescind all state and federal contracts that permit private prisons “for profit” to exist in the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. We understand that the problems that currently plague our government, its criminal justice system and in particular, the state & federal bureau of prisons (and most correctional and rehabilitation facilities) are massive. However, it is our solemn belief that the solutions for prison reform will remain unattainable and virtually impossible as long as private prisons for profit are permitted to operate in America.

Prior to the past month, and the fiasco of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and now the “Big Three” American Automobile manufacturers, the NPSCTAPP has always felt compelled to highlight the “moral Bottom line” when it comes to corrections and privatization. Although, we remain confounded by the reality that our government has allowed our justice system to be operated by private interests. The NPSCTAPP philosophy has always been “justice” should not be for sale at any price. It is our belief that the inherent and most fundamental responsibility of the criminal justice system should not be shirked, or “jobbed-out.” This is not the same as privatizing the post office or some trash pick up service in the community. There has to be a loss of meaning and purpose when an inmate looks at a guard’s uniform and instead of seeing an emblem that reads State Department of Corrections or Federal Bureau of Prisons, he sees one that says: “Atlas Prison Corporation.”

Let’s assume that the real danger of privatization is not some innate inhumanity on the part of its practitioners but rather the added financial incentives that reward inhumanity. The same logic that motivates companies to operate prisons more efficiently also encourages them to cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public. Every penny they do not spend on food, medical care or training for guards is a dime they can pocket. What happens when the pennies pocketed are not enough for the shareholders? Who will bailout the private prison industry when they hold the government and the American people hostage with the threat of financial failure…“bankruptcy?” What was unimaginable a month ago merits serious consideration today. State and Federal prison programs originate from government design, and therefore, need to be maintained by the government. It’s time to restore the principles and the vacated promise of our judicial system.

John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is while the sun is shinning”. Well the sun may not be shinning but, it’s not a bad time to begin repair on a dangerous roof that is certain to fall…. because, “Incarcerating people for profit is, in a word WRONG”

There is an urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of cynicism, indifference, apathy and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.
It is our hope that you will support the NPSCTAPP with a show of solidarity by signing our petition. We intend to assemble a collection of one million signatures, which will subsequently be attached to a proposition for consideration. This proposition will be presented to both, the Speaker Of The House Of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi) and the United States Congress.

Please Help Us. We Need Your Support. Help Us Spread The Word About This Monumental And Courageous Challenge To Create Positive Change. Place The Link To The Petition On Your Website! Pass It On!

The SINGLE VOICE PETITION and the effort to abolish private “for profit” prisons is the sole intent of NPSCTAPP. Our project does not contain any additional agendas. We have no solutions or suggestions regarding prison reform. However, we are unyielding in our belief that the answers to the many problems which currently plague this nation’s criminal justice system and its penal system in particular, cannot and will not be found within or assisted by the private “for profit” prison business. The private “for profit” prison business has a stranglehold on our criminal justice system. Its vice-like grip continues to choke the possibility of justice, fairness, and responsibility from both state and federal systems.
These new slave plantations are not the answer!

For more information please visit: http://www.npsctapp.blogsppot.com or email: williamthomas@exconciliation.com
To sign the petition please visit: http://www.petitiononline.com/gufree2/petition.html


William Thomas
National Community Outreach Facilitator
The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons
P.O. Box 156423
San Francisco, California 94115