Justice in America? The Failure of Our Prison System

John ArmstrongEthics

Our prison system is an unmitigated disaster. Very few Christians know the real problems in the system and even less really care. This is positively wrong. We need to become advocates for justice and mercy in the very best sense of both words.

Our system is moving towards a serious collapse and few know the answers. An obvious problem can be seen in the simple, observable fact that those who have money generally avoid prison and those who are poor do not. But even worse is how we treat those who are incarcerated.

California has the largest penal system. This is no surprise since it is our most populous state. It is also one of the worst systems in America. The state has been building new prisons, since 1970, at a rate that is almost beyond belief. The entire system is so overcrowded and inhumane that a federal court recently ordered the state to reduce the prison population by one-third. The system is overcome by internal violence and the prisons are not correctional facilities in any meaningful sense of the word. They are, in reality, breeding grounds for worse behavior once prisoners are released. California even farms out over 20,000 inmates to other states!

But this is not simply a California problem. It is a national nightmare. 2.2 million people are in prison in the United States today and 13.5 million will pass through the prison system in some form this year! The cost to us is in excess of $60 billion. Lest you think this is a problem worldwide you need to know that we have more people in prison than any other Western nation, having passed even Russia in the past few years.

Some of you will think that this is all caused by our illegal immigration problem. Not so. Illegals are deported, at least in most cases. The reasons we have a huge problem range from drug use to tougher sentencing and parole laws, as well as the utterly shameful idea of "three strikes and you are out." (Minor criminals have been sentenced to life in prison under such laws and few people seem to realize it! Or a relatively petty "third" crime puts a person away for life.) This "three strikes" law is the result of harsh, unjust, over-reaction to the rising crime rate!

The Christian tradition has always labored to create humane conditions for prisoners. It has also rightly emphasized that imprisonment should work for rehabilitation in every possible case. Once a just sentence is served people should be given a new opportunity. And visiting and caring for those in prison has always been understood as a work of mercy by ethically minded Christians (cf. Matthew 25:36).

While prisons are clearly needed in every society a system that is cruel and unjust must be reformed. Warehousing inmates is not justice. It violates all sense of decency and mercy. The largest percentage of those who enter our system are not violent criminals, at least not initially. These nonviolent offenders must be corrected and helped. By the system we now have in place they are often raped, brutally mistreated and infected with all kinds of diseases. It has been estimated that 350,000 of our inmates suffer from "serious mental illness." (Only the simplest argue against the idea of mental illness.)

The bottom line here is a broad based lack of respect for human dignity. Christians rightly protest the "culture of death" that is associated with abortion. I wonder why so few of those same Christians do not protest the direct assault upon human dignity that is brought about by our horrible penal system. When man is inhumane to man the results impact us all. This is a "culture of life" issue.

Cell Block
The lack of regard for those who are warehoused in our prison system has a much greater impact on our total well-being than we know. It corrupts us all in ways we have never really thought about. We cannot afford to be ignorant about this any longer. We ought to make our voices heard in the corridors of power.

We need to begin by reforming sentencing guidelines, by developing better programs for helping prisoners re-enter society on the outside, and by providing a decent health care system inside prisons. We also need to make a serious effort to keep prisoners and families engaged with each other. More judges, cells and guards is not the answer! Building more prisons will not make us safer either.

I have studied revivals for almost forty years. In every experience of revival that I know about prisons have been directly impacted. I pray that God will touch your heart and mine to make us more aware of this problem and personally ready to respond as the Lord leads us within our own context. Having preached in prisons, and worked in prison ministry, I can tell you that the need is greater than ever and we are not solving it. Our record is so bad as a nation that we ought to be clamoring for change. And the church ought to care much more about this life issue than it does. What is your church doing about this problem? What are you doing?