By 7:30am, my six students and I were on our first of two buses that would take us across town to the southeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C. We were proud of ourselves for catching the right buses and making the hour and fifteen minute commute successfully. No small feat for anyone trying to get to a program or a job on time—especially a minimum wage job that one might lose if he or she showed up late. Once we got off our last bus we saw the church, Saint Xavier Catholic, where the job-training program would be held that we had come to observe. We followed a few people into the church’s fellowship hall feeling self-conscious that we had not come out of need. But we were greeted warmly by the program’s leaders and introduced to a fellowship hall full of adults as a college group here to learn and observe.
The program was called “Jubilee Jobs.” This faith-based program was founded to help recently released prisoners connect with employers who would hire them. The term “jubilee” comes from Leviticus 25, where a year of Jubilee, or a year of Sabbath, is mandated for the Hebrew people. During this year the crops would lie fallow in order to rejuvenate the land. The people would be rejuvenated too through communal practices that would ensure economic and social equity. Property that had been loaned would be returned. Debts would be forgiven. Prisoners and slaves would be set free. The year of Jubilee would begin with a trumpet call on the Day of Atonement—a day of making amends.
As I learned more about our nation’s issue of mass incarceration, it became clear that there are little to no opportunities for atonement, debt forgiveness, or freedom for those who have been incarcerated. Even after people have served their time, we stack the deck of life against them. Ex-felons are barred from public housing, food assistance, access to drug treatment, job opportunities, and, in many states, the right to vote. All this makes it very difficult to succeed as a newly released citizen if you are poor and lack resources for support. Statistics show that within three to five years of being released 60-70% of ex-felons end up back in prison.
The more I learned about mass incarceration in preparation for our trip to Washington, D.C. the more disturbed I became. It was uncomfortable to learn that there are currently 2.3 million people incarcerated in my country with 6 million more on probation or parole. These numbers have skyrocketed since 1997 when only 200,000 people were incarcerated in the United States. It’s stunning to recognize that in this land of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” we incarcerate more people (by far) than any other industrialized nation.
Even more disturbing is the fact that the majority of those incarcerated in the United States are people of color. Currently, black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives. Latino men have a 17% chance and white men have a 6% chance.
Why has our prison system expanded so rapidly? For a full and thoughtful analysis, I recommend Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in a Age of Colorblindness. But the War on Drugs, which began under the Reagan administration (and has been supported by every administration thereafter), has been a major reason for our expanded system of incarceration. The War on Drugs set policies that incentivized police departments to get tough on drug crime. Federal money and military-style equipment has poured into local police departments to encourage drug arrests. And even though drugs are abused in all communities, no matter the racial or economic makeup, poor communities of color were (and are) targeted for these military-style raids. In studying this issue we must be honest with ourselves. If SWAT teams broke into wealthy, white suburban homes, terrorizing elderly women and innocent children, we’d be protesting the injustice. So poor communities of color are targeted instead.
The War on Drugs also instituted extreme, racially biased sentencing for minor charges. We heard story after story of people being sentenced for 15 to 20 to sometimes even 30 years for minor drug charges. We learned about judges who knew their sentences were unjust, but whose hands were tied by the law. One law, in particular, was mind-blowing in its injustice. Up until 2010, a conviction of 500 grams of powder cocaine triggered a mandatory sentence of five years in prison while a conviction of 5 grams of crack cocaine triggered the same five-year mandatory sentence. What’s the difference between powder and crack cocaine? What’s the reason for this 100:1 sentencing disparity? The only difference is that wealthier, white people typically abuse powder cocaine. Poor, people of color typically abuse crack cocaine.
Our trip was not without hope, though. We learned how, in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. We also learned about the Sentencing Reform Act – currently waiting for Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring it to the Senate floor for a vote– that makes the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, allowing those convicted before 2010 to be resentenced under the 18:1 ratio. Our group met with Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) office to thank him for his leadership in these criminal justice reforms. We also met with Congresswoman Cheri Bustos’ (D-IL) office to ask for her support of the bill when it comes to the House of Representatives. We are even planning a trip to Senator Mark Kirk’s (R-IL) office in Chicago to ask for his support. One of the empowering lessons we learned was that we can make a difference when we advocate on these issues to our political representatives.
The fellowship hall at Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church was full of people, all African Americans, many with criminal records. An older man sat next to me with grey-speckled hair, dressed in a smart tweed sport coat and tie. Another younger man sat in front of me dressed in slouchy blue jeans, a chain hanging from his pocket, a beanie on his head. A young woman juggled a baby in her arms while she tried to listen.
The program began with speeches made by two African American leaders, George and Jacquelyn, about how Jubilee Jobs worked. Then the founder got up to speak—a tiny white woman named Terry Flood. At first the people gathered were only half paying attention to this tiny woman speaking softly and kindly. I couldn’t blame them. Why should they trust her? But then Ms. Flood paused to survey the room. After taking a few breaths, the tone of her voice grew earnest and she said this:
I want you to know that we at Jubilee Jobs believe that everyone comes here with a core of goodness. Your past is your past. You may have made some mistakes or taken some missteps, or had some bad things happen to you along the way. But that’s all in the past now. Today is a new day.
Her words brought tears to my eyes. Not only because of the respect she held for all the people gathered in that room and all they had been through. But also because of the change this respect created. Suddenly everyone was paying attention. People sat up straighter. The room grew quiet and still. A sense of trust arose—as if the people gathered, people desperate for a job and a way to improve their lives—suddenly believed that it was a new day.
My prayer for all of us, and for a nation in need of Jubilee, is that this can be a new day for people to be free.
[Feature Image: Tim]