Prisoners of Hope, Arise

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Isaiah 43:1-3

This week our staff has been thinking a lot about redemption, and since this verse was brought forth at our weekly meeting on Monday, the words of Isaiah have weighed heavily on my mind.

The concept of redemption is universal. It cuts across ideologies and party affiliations. And, as people of faith, ours is the task to bring the liberating love of God to those who have lost their freedom. That task is found in the Gospel imperative to visit those in prison, but the call for redemption does not end with visitations. It is central to the message of Christianity, and it is the driving force behind much of the work we do here at Protestants for the Common Good—especially when it comes to criminal justice.

But redemption is hard to come by in our criminal justice system. The United States has become in effect a prisoner nation, incarcerating 2.3 million people, mostly of African-American and Hispanic origins. Prisons are filled to capacity, and, with recidivism rates as high as 53% in males and 39% in females, it is difficult to see that the U.S. correctional system is doing much in the way of correcting at all. Our current system is less about redemption and reconciliation and more about retribution and endless incarceration. A wise old pastor from South Carolina once put it to me this way, “There’s nothing about the penitentiary that makes people penitent. Those who go into the system for minor offenses often come out hardened criminals.”

In a few weeks, PCG will host a symposium on criminal justice. The focus is on models for diversion—ways for low-level drug offenders to receive treatment and rehabilitation rather than becoming a part of the cycle of imprisonment. Around the country, new measures are being taken that aim to correct decades of poor decision-making. Those involved in the criminal justice system are beginning to realize the folly of locking people away for low-level, non-violent offenses. The discriminatory effect of these actions is becoming more apparent. When it comes to those convicted of these low-level, non-violent crimes, we as a nation have failed.

PCG hopes to demonstrate these models for diversion in order to bring the conversation about finding alternatives to incarceration to the desks of Illinois policy-makers. Our hope is to work so that one day the United States will have a fair and effective criminal justice system that focuses on redemption and equality—one that recognizes that no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you come from, every human being has value and the potential to grow and change over time.

As a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, I had the privilege of being in the presence of the late Harmon Wray. A restorative justice advocate, Wray created a teaching program at Riverbend Maximum Security prison that took Vanderbilt students inside prison to learn alongside inmates about theology and the politics of crime and justice in America. Harmon Wray used to talk about “healing justice”, which begins with confession—admitting where we have failed.

In this conversation about criminal justice, it is not only those convicted of crimes who must seek healing justice. We as a nation must admit that we have failed. We have failed to respond appropriately to those convicted of offenses. We have failed to rehabilitate those who fall within our care. We have failed to value the lives of those human beings who have the potential to change. And we have failed to see the value of restorative justice over retribution.

Finding alternatives to incarceration is not just good public policy. It is essential to the redemption of those incarcerated within this prison nation. It is essential for the redemption of us all.

In the words of the prophet, Zechariah, “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” Prisoners of hope, arise!

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