Last week I was able to visit the jail along with some of the men that I work with The Impact Movement. The mission statement of The Impact Movement is:
African American emerging leaders -- spiritually focused, financially free and morally fit -- taking the truth of Jesus Christ to the campus, the community and the world.
So while a big part of what we do is our outreach to students on college campuses, we're also committed to being involved in the community as well. We set aside part of our days on Thursdays for our staff here in Orlando to serve in the community in some way -- whether that be tutoring young children, ministering to the homeless, volunteering at the jail or some other capacity. Within The Impact Movement, we are fiercely committed to living out the gospel in both word and deed.
During our visit we were able to tour the facility while Chaplain Fleeks shared about the different areas we were entering into and the realities that the inmates face. We also had the chance to sit down with a few of the juveniles and hear their stories about what brought them to the jail and what God had been doing in their lives since they'd been there. While holding hands in a prayer circle with these young men before ending our visit, it was hard to believe that these were the same people that had committed some of the horrible crimes that had brought them there.
This afternoon I visited the jail along with a handful of men from our church. We conducted a church service for the juvenile inmates and, once again, had some time to talk with them and hear their stories. I think it's easy to look at these guys as bad people beyond redemption. And, agreeably, a lot of them have done some bad things. But I certainly don't think they are beyond redemption. I am reminded that apart of God's grace, I could be sitting there with them. I grew up in a neighborhood where drug dealing was going on and a number of friends from my youth have done time - some for some pretty horrible crimes.
As I spent some time with these guys, I thought of an article that my friend, Troy, just sent me from Mark Earley, the president of Prison Fellowship. Earley comments on the Jena, Louisiana trial and the disparities in our American judicial system:
"The case of the Jena 6 has forced us to ask once again if our justice system is color blind in America. Thousands gathered in that small town on September 20 because they are convinced that African-Americans are unfairly treated in the criminal justice system. To be honest, it's hard to discern right now exactly what happened in Jena. But don't miss the point here: It is not hard to discern the incredibly disproportionate rate of African-Americans behind bars in America.
The thousands who converged on Jena were most outraged at the prosecutor's decision to charge six African-American kids with attempted murder in connection with a beating of a white student. In their opinion, the fact that the victim left the hospital after two hours proved that the charges were excessive. Those suspicions were reinforced by reports that the prosecutor had previously told other African-American students that he "could end [their] lives with the stroke of a pen."
For many African-Americans, this is not an idle threat—it is reality. Although only 13 percent of the population, African-Americans make up nearly half of our prison population. The incarceration rate for Blacks is nearly six times that of Whites. As social scientist Glenn Loury points out, "a black male resident of the state of California is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college." And this disparity is not limited to, or even greatest in, the South: The disparities in Iowa and New Jersey, for example, are nearly three times greater than in Louisiana.
What drives much of this disparity is the War on Drugs: In 1975, Blacks were twice as likely as Whites to be arrested for drug offenses—by 1989, four times as likely. Yet there is no evidence that Blacks are more likely than Whites to use illegal drugs—in fact, the opposite is true. These differences and other factors are having a devastating effect in the African-American community in ways that many outside that community do not begin to comprehend. It is devastating an entire generation of families. If the present trends continue, for every Black male born today, one out of three will be behind bars in their lifetime.
As criminologist Jeffrey Fagan and his colleagues put it, "the declining economic fortunes of former inmates [creates] . . . strains on families of prisoners that weaken the family's ability to supervise children . . . " As Loury put it, these children are then "likely to join a new generation of untouchables" and perpetuate the tragic cycle. This impact and the disparities that cause it are issues that should concern every Christian. Not simply because it is unjust that one group of people should be punished in such a disproportionate manner—that's bad enough—but it should also concern us because it undermines confidence in the rule of law. It makes it easier for people to suspect the worst in places like Jena.
The Christian author Philip Yancey recently said it is easy to quote Amos—let justice roll down like a mighty river. It is much harder to build an irrigation system. Nevertheless, the hard work of justice in America is something that every Christian, Black and White, should tackle together."
Copyright (c) 2007 Prison Fellowship
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