When Crime Pays

By Tracy Keenan

January 23, 2016

Please know this: I’m not recommending that EVERYONE start watching the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black,” especially if you are skittish about swearing and sex – both are abundant, and it’s graphic, too. I’m a minister and this is a blog that resides on the church website, so I need to make that part clear. Moreover, in this series, there are some vivid depictions of religious abuses, so if you are quick to take offense when your faith is shown in a nasty light, this is not for you.
On the other hand, the characters are exquisitely drawn, and they are far from two-dimensional. It paints the inmates and the corrections officers as real and flawed people, with beautiful and appalling traits. (Yes, just like you and me, especially if we had lived the lives they had.) The crucible of the lives that brought them there and the hotter crucible of prison itself, bring out the worst. Then there are moments of surprising grace that open here and there, just where you were sure it would be impossible. Still, it’s not for everyone.
And – and this is the important part – it gives a sense of how broken the prison system in the United States is. Piper Kerman, who wrote the book on which the Netflix series is based, was a privileged, well-educated white woman who was incarcerated in a federal prison for 15 months for a crime she had committed in her early twenties during a brief period of wild and stupid decisions. She did her time, but learned a lot from the women with whom she was incarcerated, and her book is as much a case for reform as it is the story of her experience. The Netflix series takes great liberties with the characters and the plot line, but still manages to illustrate the truth of the system’s brokenness.
You may have known that the United States incarcerates more of it’s citizens than any other country in the world.
I hadn’t.
“America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 5% of the world's population and 25% of its prisoners. Nearly 2½ million Americans are in prison. Over 65 million people, or 20% of the country, have criminal records. Most disturbingly, nearly 40% of our country's prisoners are African-Americans, who only make up 13% of the general population.”
Evan Feinberg (in that same article) says, “Americans aren't addicted to crime; our politicians are addicted to criminalizing things.”
Since the 1970’s prison population has gone from 280,000 to over 200,000,000. The people who used to be in mental institutions (and no one is recommended a return to that – there has to be a better alternative!) are in prison. The people who are arrested for using street drugs and abusing prescription drugs are in jail rather than rehab facilities. People who should not be incarcerated are placed in an environment that actually prevents rehabilitation, and worsens the problems.
The privatization of prisons to become for-profit institutions is another troubling trend. It’s in the interest of the bottom line, but not of society. Privatized prisons are less safe and secure both to inmates and to correctional officers - if making money is the goal, cutting corners is more "justifiable." The less humane an institution is, the worse the harm. Prisons are not “correctional,” then, they are purely punishment – they are hell without redemption. They take whatever potential a human being might have for learning how to live well on the outside and break it. For-profit prisons have no interest in corrections. They make their money on filling beds. Many government contracts with those prisons guarantee them to be 90% filled. That is a driving factor in sentencing and even legislation about sentencing.
Even if certain prison reforms are enacted – those that provide treatment for mental illness and addiction – these cannot be farmed out to for-profit services whose main interest is making money. Then it would be more of the same, and their interest would be in keeping people dependent.

Prison reform is something both liberals and conservatives seem to be able to support together, not only politically, but theologically. The only people I can imagine wanting to perpetuate this broken system are those who have their eyes on the cold, hard cash, or those whose cold, hard hearts have no compassion for the tortured souls and families possessed by addiction or wracked with mental illness.
What can we do? Obviously you can contact your political representatives and let them know your thoughts. But if we are going to argue against for-profit take-overs of these services, we have to support non-profit ways of providing them.
I’ve often thought that the church is not equipped to do this kind of work. But we CAN help encourage caring people who ARE equipped for that to have the courage and wisdom to press forward.
I would love to invite creative dialogue on how we can be a part of positive change here. Anyone?

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