Bringing Shalom to the City….

stories from CityTeam International in Oakland, CA

Are we Giving Moments of Redemption…or just throwing them away?

Written by Samuel Garcia

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed.  One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him.  “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus answered him, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Luke 23:32, 39-43

On the program day pertaining to criminal justice we got to see the brokenness of our country’s penal system.  Did you know that even though the overall crime rate of America is decreasing, the amount of prisoners in jail is increasing?  That means we are just sweeping people off the streets to throw them in jail!! We also learned that America’s jail systems are overcrowded, but only with Blacks and Latinos.  The U.S. is the lead in putting the most people away in prisons, when compared to other countries globally.  Why, then, is it only filled with colored people?  Another interesting fact is that black people are more likely to go to prison than they are to go to college.  Latinos are not too far behind.

This stuff really got me angry, because it gave some credit to all those stories about racist cops and how the prison system is just a big business obsessed with putting people away.  The truth hit home, however, when Mike McBride, pastor of “The Way-Berkeley”, the church that I have been attending all summer, told his story of a time when he was violated and humiliated by the police in San Jose!! He used to be a youth pastor for a big African-American church there, and one night coming home, he was pulled over for no reason, asked to spread his legs, pull down his pants, and submit to a full-body search and watch as the police ripped apart the interior of his car looking for drugs.  He said it was because they thought he was another guy.  But still, it didn’t seem right in my mind.

Brian Heller De Leon, from a non-profit called CJ and CJ, (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice) had us do more simulations that helped us better understand the shortcomings of the incarceration system.  First of all, I do agree that people who do a crime should be locked up for however long in order to be disciplined in the matter.  What I don’t agree with, however, is the inability of the legal system to help you become a more responsible citizen upon leaving the detention center.  There’s no focus on rehabilitation or re-entry, which makes it difficult for some people with problems like substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and such, to have a normal life after.  They get caught up in the same situations that brought them to jail the first time, and, before they know it, they are spending their entire life in jail.  In addition, nobody is going to want to hire someone with a felony.  So how are these people supposed to provide for themselves without the ability to get a good job? The only thing they can resort to is selling drugs or engaging in another form of illegal activity in order to make ends meet, especially if they have a family.  This in effect will get them back to jail eventually.  They might as well stay there because food, clothing, and shelter is at least provided there.  That’s all a person basically needs to survive.

Doing another simulation, we had to race across the room, where everyone supposedly started off on the same line.  Some people, however, had to hold 1 or 2 bricks in their hand to symbolize social determinants like racism, substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental abuse.  I started off with a brick labeled “substance abuse”.  Each leg of the race symbolized key milestones people tend to go for in life—finish college, good job, get married, etc. We had to get across by either running, hopping, crawling on all fours, or skipping, in order to represent the differences in each.  To add to the twist, only the first few people who reached the finish line were rewarded.  Since people with bricks found it harder to accomplish anything, I pretty much lost the game, indicating that people with negative social determinants don’t tend to finish much in life unless they get help to take the bricks out of their hands.  And as they are more likely to be punished in a system that makes money off of their negative social determinants, these people who most likely come from low-income, colored neighborhoods, will probably be the ones we find coming back to prison.

What made this simulation significant for me, however, was the fact that the brick I was carrying—substance abuse—is the brick that my brother has been carrying for many years now.  He has been in-and-out of prison for at least 5 years now, and from the looks of it, I don’t really see him moving forward.  This whole simulation helped me empathize with him, though, because he hasn’t really got any help with a program that teaches him how to overcome that.  He just keeps getting caught back in the streets, and back into jail.  With a kid of his own, this devastating cycle perpetuates family instability, and, in the end, will do him no good anytime in the near future.

So what’s the solution? I don’t know, as of right now.  I’m not suggesting we set all prisoners free from their cells back into society.  I do believe, however, that there should be some sense of rehabilitation, and that as a judicial system, prisons need to be places that provide moments of redemption rather than become places where people are stashed away from society like something being tossed into the trash bin.

And it’s so cool how the Bible informs us even of this complex dilemma!! When Jesus died on the cross he offered eternal life to one of the criminals that was crucified beside him.  How cool is that! Even on his dying breaths Jesus still thought that the man next to him, truly a criminal of his time because to be crucified you had to be bad-ass for your time, was still worthy of redemption.  Do we as a society believe that of incarcerated criminals? Are we giving individuals moments of redemption, or are we simply tossing them away for the rest of eternity?

 

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