By Alan Bean
Yesterday, I spent eight hours listening to Texans talk about the impact of mass incarceration (more on that in a moment). This morning I am sitting in a McDonald’s in Beaumont, Texas eating an Egg McMuffin and listening to the weather channel compete with FOX news. I usually tell the young woman behind the counter (if, as is usually the case, she is African American) that FOX is insulting to our president and that upsets me. But I don’t have the energy for that this morning.
I am in Beaumont to visit Ramsey Muniz, the Latino political leader serving a federal life sentence for his part in a non-existent narcotics conspiracy. Normally, visitors are allowed to enter the visitor’s area at 8:30, but this morning we were told that we would have to wait three hours to see our loved ones because “we’re doing a fog count.”
It isn’t foggy in Beaumont. Seasonably humid, perhaps, but you can see for miles in any direction. The sign on the prison door says, “No visitation until 11:30.” No, “we apologize for the inconvenience,” or “please accept our apology, but . . .” This is prison, folks.
I informed the four twenty-something attendants in the visitation area that this kind of messaging combined with a totally unnecessary “fog count” constitutes an insult to the families who have come to visit. They reacted as if I was being a smart-ass (which I was). The rules are the rules. Fog counts are very serious business. Some inmate might wander off in the fog. The fact that there is no fog this morning changes nothing.
So I got in my car and drove fifteen miles to this McDonald’s. I can afford the $3.50 in gas; most of the other visitors cannot. They will sit in the parking log for three long hours, trying to keep the toddlers entertained. The shame and disgrace of incarceration clings to the families of the incarcerated.
Which brings me back to yesterday’s full day of testimony concerning prisons, inmates, inmates-in-waiting (the children of the incarcerated) and the mechanics of the New Jim Crow.
Michelle Alexander, the now-famous author of The New Jim Crow, was in Houston Thursday night, and her speech was being aired live on Pacifica Radio as I drove into town. I asked myself how many times she has told the story about the young man in San Francisco who told her who told her that virtually every young black male in his neighborhood was “in the system”. But there is more passion in her voice now than there was three years ago when her non-stop speaking tour began. Plenty of people could recite the same statistics and make the same arguments, but there is only one Michelle Alexander. I’m not sure how shelives with the physical and emotional exhaustion of telling the same agonized story every night, but she has a unique and vital role to play, so she keeps going.
A few years ago, shortly after her book hit the bookstores, I gave Michelle a call. How, I asked, could we get the necessary facts about the drug war and mass incarceration to Middle America. Michelle asked me to answer my own question. ”I think we’ve got to begin with the more progressive end of the African American religious spectrum,” I said. Establish a beachhead there, and you can gradually create a new consensus within Black religious culture. From that position, we will be ready to take our case to the White liberal establishment.
“You need to talk to Iva Carruthers,” Michelle told me. ”She is head of the Samuel Dewitt Procter conference, and they are writing a study guide for The New Jim Crow. She gets it.”
I was in Houston yesterday because I made that call. The Procter Conference (as insiders call it) is inviting former inmates, pastors, prison chaplains, social workers, experts on the criminal justice system, and those who work closely with inmates and their families to testify before a panel of commissioners in nineteen cities across the country. The issues and insights emerging from this conversation will eventually be worked into a detailed report making the case for a better way. I was selected as one of the commissioners for the state of Texas.
As I wait to re-enter a federal prison, I thought I’d share some highlights from yesterday’s testimony.
Rebecca Robertson with the Texas ACLU related the depressing statistics. In Texas, she told us, 1 in 106 White males is currently incarcerated. For Hispanic males, it is 1 in 36; for Black males, 1 in 15. As a result, Texas spends seven times more for corrections than for higher education, and that ratio grows more skewed with each passing year.
The factors driving these incredible numbers include ever harsher sentences, the invention of new crimes, and the outcry against illegal immigrants. The big winners in the mass incarceration game are the private prisons.
I asked Ms. Robertson why politician are so enamored of private prisons. ”The lobbyists have a very persuasive pitch,” she said: ‘We’ll take this expense off your books and put it on ours. We can do it so much cheaper.’”
Unfortunately, the reality of private prisons doesn’t live up to the hype. There are far more disturbances in private prisons that in the public system, Robertson told us, and the private prison industry is not set up to deal with it. The public prison system is fraught with problems, but at least it is somewhat accountable. The private system is not subject to the same level of scrutiny, and most abuses are related to the opaque nature of that culture.
My good friend Joy Strickland, founder of the Dallas-based Mothers Against Teen Violence, told us that the war on drugs isn’t being waged in every part of America. ”It is a war against the poor and the dispossessed,” she said, “the very people Jesus cared about the most.”
“There is a big difference between what is legal and what is moral,” Joy reminded us. ”Most of what Adolf Hitler did was legal; much of what Dr. King did was illegal.” Joy talked to us about the morality of our laws. Back in the free world, former inmates are deprived of virtually every form of public assistance, cannot live with their families, and find it nearly impossible to find real work. ”It is immoral,” she asserted, “to take away a person’s ability to support themselves.”
Marilyn K. Gambrell told us that she started out as a parole officer. I asked her about her transition from working in the system to working as an advocate for the children impacted by the system. ”I was seeing little kids, three, four, five years old, running after the police car because their mothers and fathers were being taken away,” she replied. ”There were no special services designed for this population. These children have way too much pain and responsibility and they can’t take it any more. When they act out, we arrest them. We need to start talking to these children before we handcuff them.”
Gambrell believes that volunteers who grew up with incarcerated parents can reach these children more effectively than trained therapists and counselors. ”Survivors are key players,” she said. ”There is almost a fear of therapist-counselors. Even if the children like you, they won’t tell you what’s really happening because they’re afraid you won’t like them. There is no trust for any adult.”
The Rev. Dr. Virgil Wood, a lifelong civil rights activist who got his start with Martin Luther King Jr and Sr, provided the most emotional (and entertaining) testimony of the day. At points, he had me in tears, something I hadn’t expected in so formal a setting. To my great surprise, he said he had worked with Jerry Falwell (back in the 1950s when both men were leading struggling Baptist churches in Lynchburg, Virginia) to “reverse the jail trail.”
“Falwell was a pussycat,” Wood assured me during the lunch break. ”I have found that people with even a little bit of Jesus in them will always be open to at least a little bit of truth.”
Woods reminded us of Michelle Alexander’s birdcage analogy. ”If we only look at one isolated issue, we only see one wire in the cage and we don’t understand how the bird is trapped. Nor should we conclude that every wire in the cage was created with the intention of trapping the bird.” (Like all the quotes in this report, this is a good faith paraphrase. A verbatim transcript of this testimony is being prepared.)
Woods has seen a lot in his eighty-one years and his historical perspective was intriguing. ”It isn’t easy for a Black man in America to be a Christian,” he admitted. ”Malcolm X had a big impact on me, and I almost became a Muslim minister at one point. I’m glad I didn’t go there because Jesus has been too good to me.”
Woods isn’t impressed with Black America’s stewardship of the civil rights won in the 1950s and 60s. “As soon as Martin got us to the mountain top, he was called up to heaven, and we built the golden calf. We’ve got to get off the Exodus motif and get on the Jubilee motif. The Exodus motif tells us that God freed us from one nation so we can march into the promised land and throw out everybody who already lives there. That’s not the Jesus way. Jesus was the non-violent coming of God. “
“We had ours and we forgot about those we left behind,” Wood continued. ”The jails are full because of bad theology; we have created a theology of judgment instead of a theology of compassion. We are too naive about what we are doing. I am so fed up with Black folks who have succeeded but don’t care about the little people. It’s not race anymore; it’s privilege.”
“You go to our churches,” he said, “and three-quarters of the people have folks in prison, but you’d never know it. It’s our broken people, but we won’t talk about it.”
“I’m impressed with Jesus,” Wood told us, as if we might be surprised to hear him say it. ”Crazy man in the cemetery. Jesus comes up to him and says, “Hey, sit down with me for a minute. What’s happening, man? What did your momma call you when you were a kid.”
“That’s what I call the “Gramma Jesus,” Wood told us. ”Of all the people who have ever loved you, who loved you the most? Gramma! MY Grama was always subverting my natural tendency to be mediocre. The Gramma Jesus is the only Jesus you can trust.”
Wood concluded his remarks with a half serious swipe at the impact of White liberal theology on the progressive black church. ”I had a friend who used to say, ‘Harvard has messed up more Negroes than bad whiskey.’ He might be right.”
He might. On the other hand, it is precisely this mix of prophetic theology and social awareness that makes progressive Black churches so wonderfully unique. The White liberal church has largely abandoned the evangelical roots of American Christianity. We are lifeless at best, post-Christian at worst. We are so afraid of privileging the religious narrative we inherited from our grandparents that we have no story, we have no song. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is widely vilified as a wild-eyed radical in White America, but for Black progressives, Wright is an icon.
Earlier this year, I was standing behind Reverend Wright when someone in the audience spontaneously broke into the old chorus, “O How I Love Jesus.” Wright lifted his hands int the air, beaming with holy pleasure as he belted out the old melody. Sure, he’s a social radical, a liberation theologian. But he’s also an evangelical Christian in the best sense of that term. And it the religion tradition Rev. Wright represents that is leading the charge against the New Jim Crow.