Sunday, November 9, 2014

Prisons and Profits

"He tol' me up there the deputies got to take guys in. Sheriff gets seventy-five cents a day for each prisoner, an' he feeds 'em for a quarter. If he ain't got prisoners, he don't make no profit." - Floyd in The Grapes of Wrath - Chapter 20
Though a Dust Bowl epic may not seem a place to find contemporary commentary, in this case, John Steinbeck presciently hits the nail on the head.

When I speak to college groups and churches about the Bible and justice two themes I frequently come back to are systemic injustice and the hiddenness of injustice.

Briefly, the first looks like this. The Fall broke everything, our relationship with God, other humans, creation, psyche, and so on. This too includes a fracturing in man's relationships with systems. It is theologically (and empirically) unavoidable that sin has infected not just the human heart, but the systems that collectives of humans create, populate, and run. The economic system. The political system. The education system. The social system. The immigration system. Any other system. All these systems have been vandalized by sin. Many Christians have a hard time seeing this reality until it is pointed out to them in this framework. Our systems have been stained by the Fall. They are in need of redemption.

Second, injustice is hidden. In particular, this is a truth that needs to be articulated for those from majority culture. Folks who are ethnically, racially, or economically marginalized need make very little effort to name injustices, but majority folks often have blinders like a Clydesdale. Their experience, upbringing, and social circles all serve to build an unintentional barricade between their consciousness and injustice. Not surprisingly, these injustices serve to reiterate and perpetuate this blindness (i.e. residential segregation, which is primarily the result of systemic injustice).

But, I digress, that's not what I logged on to write about, it was just necessary introduction.

All of this leads me to this, as a follower of Christ, as one who believes Jesus is working the redemption and reconciliation of all things, and as someone who sees the scriptural imperative of justice, I need to have eyes to see injustice. I need to be shown where to act, how to pray, and the route for the Gospel to break-in. And if you call on the name of Christ, you need to see it too!

So, let's help each other see. Let's trade eyes some time. I'll go first.

I live in the US. The US incarcerates a lot of people. A greater portion of our population than any other nation with a significant population and by a wide, wide margin. More specifically, I live in Florida. Our state leads nation in charging juveniles as adults. A study released in April of this year found that Florida has nearly double the rate for juveniles being charged as adults as the next highest state (Oregon). Florida is five times higher than the national average. Adding to this, in Florida juvenile court records are not sealed and it is nearly impossible for felons to regain their voting rights. So, a 15 year old boy convicted of robbery, will one day be a 50 year old who is almost unemployable (because most, entry-level jobs have a no-call-back policy once you check the "Convicted of a crime" box) . . . at least not in any legal career field. Further, I work with kids who even amongst those living in Florida are even more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and harshly punished. Oftentimes for things kids in my suburban hometown did every weekend and never faced any consequences.   (Sidenote: If you are only going to read one thing today, click that link and close my blog. Everyone needs to read the article linked above).

But, I digress again. This is also not what I logged on to write about.

I logged on to write about this: Florida's entire state youth prison system is contracted out to private prison corporations. These are for-profit companies that hold about 8% of the total US prison population, but this is a number that has grown steadily for 20 years and continues to trend upward. In fact, specialization is being shown as 49% of immigration detention beds and 40% of youth detention beds are operated by private firms.

There are some statistical and empirical reasons to be concerned:

  • Florida (all private) has a 40% one-year juvenile recidivism rate. New York (no private) has a 25% rate.
  • Further, there is profound evidence of significant mismanagement, violence, corner cutting, and neglect in private run facilities. The former top compliance officer for the Florida DJJ wrote about a facility in south Florida, "Two things really stood out: Staffing was inadequate, and the kids weren't eating. Therefore, they were not safe." 
  • Cases of sexual assault frequently were not reported in these private facilities. 
  • Inmates were denied access to the state's whistle-blower hotline that was intended as the way to report abuse. 
  • Finally, statistically, private run prisons see 49% more assaults on guards by prisoners and 65% more assaults on prisoners by fellow prisoners than traditional facilities.
However, I'm actually even more concerned about a philosophical problem than I am about these alarming statistics. It is two nested parts. 

We must begin by asking, What do we believe prisons are for? Ask yourself. What are they for? Are they purely centers for punishment? Or are they intended to create restored lives and productive members of society?

There are certainly a variety of answers, but I think most people would say they are intended to be about rehabilitation. There may be a punitive element, but American idealism and certainly Christian charity call us to lean towards rehabilitation.

So after asking this, we must then ask, What interest does a for-profit corporation have in rehabilitation?

If I call Pizza Hut are they going to try to talk me out of ordering a pizza? No, I am a customer. They want repeat customers. The whole experience is tailored to keeping me coming back.

I would contend the situation is the same with prison corporations.

It's simple economics folks, rehabilitation isn't just bad business for private prisons, it's corporate suicide. From a simple business perspective, their best interest is in creating and perpetuating criminality. More recidivism and an expansion of the criminal code (i.e. madatory minimum sentences) are good business practice. And if you don't believe that's possible, let's review a doctrine called depravity and let's consider that there is evidence that a Florida contractor, Youth Services International, would keep inmates past their scheduled release date so they could collect more revenue. Further, to answer my mind's immediate counterargument, these corporation's contracts are not tied to progress or success as rehabilitative facilities, they are tied to cost-saving--plain and simple (and there is debate over whether these facilities even save costs in the long run as well). So, there is no disincentive on creating a culture that fosters re-offending and there is incentive to cut superfluous costs like social workers, psychologists, educators, and so forth.

An economic arrangement that thrives by creating a demand for criminals is an ethical problem. And there's plentiful data to show these corporations are flexing their political muscle via lobbying and campaign donations to assure that more and more people end up on the criminal end of the spectrum.

This is unjust. People of God . . . speak up! Pray. Lobby. Withhold your vote. Pray some more.

Finally, when assessing any type of injustice (or really any situation at all) I'd offer a helpful tool. I'd urge anyone who calls on Christ to use the principle of the imago dei. The image of God.

No matter the issue we are talking about, first and foremost, frame it in a human perspective. Every issue needs be seen through the lens that every person involved was made in God's image. Not from political standpoint, not from monetary pros and cons, not from my family history or cultural tradition. Frame your thoughts and discussion in terms of humanity, in terms of image bearers, who no matter what they have done, no matter how heinous they may have acted, still carry that image by divine fiat.

So when we look at immigration or abortion or education or criminal justice, look around, acknowledge all the human participants. Acknowledge that first and foremost this is a human issue. By simply applying this principle it gets us a long, long way.

A structure that profits off of the imprisonment of and perpetuates abuse towards minors is systemic injustice. Train your eyes to see it. See the image of God in those being hurt by it. And stand against it.