Imprisoning someone is one of the most powerful things our government can do on our behalf. Who, what, when, where, why and how we do it are all by design. We own it. In many ways it’s a snapshot of who we are and how we view each other as human beings. And that’s what makes the endless crises in North Carolina’s prisons so revealing.
In the past year alone there have been riots, drug busts, staff and inmates murdered, pervasive gang activity, suicides, assaults and rapes. We’re told understaffing, poor pay and low morale are the biggest causes. Not one word about broken culture.
If ever a euphemism existed, it’s referring to our incarceration systems as “Corrections.” Truth be told, we operate departments of punishment, retribution and vengeance. We warehouse people, treat them like dirt and then kick them out into the world with few community or family supports. Then we hope for a miracle to happen. I don’t have a problem with tough. I do have a problem with dumb.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’ve had a bit of experience with our jails and prisons in my life. I spent what seemed like half of my early childhood visiting my biological father through barbed wire fences all over the state. Then my sister followed in his footsteps. Now, as a therapeutic foster parent, I've had several kids who have bounced in and out of incarceration. Nothing ever changes. Every time someone comes out after an extended visit they’re just a little harder, a little less hopeful, with a lot less to lose. It sure looks to me like that’s the way we want it.
By all appearances we punish for punishment’s sake. There are some really bad folks in prison, but most are non-violent, low-level offenders locked up for far too long. They’re caged in compounds where loss of their freedom is just the beginning. We make sure they live in horrible conditions, eat crap food, are deprived of anything resembling normal, and treated like trash, sun up to sun down. Even though we have a captive audience, we spend very little time or money on rehabilitation (vocational education, drug and mental health treatment).
As the 1.6 million North Carolinians with criminal records already know, after they’ve served their sentence, it’s time to pay the real price. They’ll discover more than 900 state and federal laws denying them a wide range of privileges and rights, based solely on their records. They’ll start looking for a job, not realizing 92 percent of employers conduct background checks and applicants with criminal records are 50 percent less likely to receive a call back. Then almost half of them will be right back in prison within five years. Wash, rinse, repeat.
There but for the grace of God (aka luck, a good lawyer, or a well-connected daddy), go each of us. Because we’re all guilty of something. Who among us hasn’t made bad choices and broken multiple laws that deserve punishment? If we were really being tough on crime, you and I both would be busting rocks somewhere.
The question isn’t whether people deserve to be punished for crimes they commit. It’s more like, do the rest of us really deserve to punish them like we do? Punishment and redemption aren’t mutually exclusive. Check with Jesus. The agony of the imprisoned does not increase the happiness of our God. It only proves how unfit we are to judge.