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Crossing barriers

Pendle Hill conference
Friends gathered in Pennsylvania for a conference on ending mass incarceration.  Photo: Joe Hulihan / AFSC

“Martin Luther King, Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable. There is no doubt that if young white people were incarcerated at the same rates as young Black people, the issue would be a national emergency.” — Cornel West 

I first went into a prison in California in 2002 to facilitate Alternatives to Violence Project workshops on conflict resolution for young men. They were ages 18 to 25, and all had been convicted of felonies while still minors. The youth correctional system was supposed to rehabilitate these young people, but in reality, this notoriously violent facility was “locked down” more than 100 days a year, confining everyone to their cells 23 hours a day.

It was hard to get into the prison on our terms, ensuring every workshop served young men across gang, racial, and ethnic lines. Prison authorities resisted, sure that such a mix would lead to violence. But we insisted.

The warden phoned in frequently during our first workshop, expecting to hear that a fight had broken out. He finally came in person just in time to see 20 smiling faces—from different backgrounds— in a group hug. Over more than four years, we never had a single violent incident. And the young men clamored for additional workshops, recruited their friends, and made new friends across racial and gang lines that had been uncrossable barriers in their daily lives.

Volunteering in this prison shattered all my myths about “gang-bangers.” Far from being threatening or surly, these were bright, vulnerable young people, many of whom had been incarcerated since they were 12 or 13 years old. They welcomed the chance to be playful, to share from the heart, to learn new skills, and to be treated with respect. These young men became not just friends, but part of my extended family. 

These men had committed violent crimes, including murders, while still children. They had grown up with violence in their lives. Many had watched a close friend or family member die. They all wanted something better for their younger relatives at home and for themselves. One young man shared tearfully during a guided meditation on forgiveness, “I realized the person I need to forgive is myself.”

As we left one workshop, a guard mentioned that he was retiring. “What will you do now?” we asked. He said, “I want to do what you do—come back here and facilitate these workshops. I’ve been here for 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything that made as much difference as this. It gives me hope.”

My experience in prison showed me how inhumane, cruel, and arbitrary our criminal justice system is. My experience also showed me that even a career prison guard can acknowledge the failure of our retributive justice system and recognize the power of a transformative alternative that helps people heal themselves and address the harms done to others.

One of the reasons the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world is because we choose to criminalize conditions—like drug addiction—that are not crimes. Since the “war on drugs” began in 1970, our imprisoned population increased 700 percent to over 2 million. More than 60 percent of those in prison are people of color, and the communities they come from bear the brunt of our discriminatory and inequitably applied laws.

The criminalization of people of color begins as young as 8 years old, with “zero-tolerance” policies in schools that send children not to the principal’s office, but to juvenile court for “willful defiance” or having a plastic butter knife in their backpack. One encounter with a juvenile court greatly increases a child’s chance of dropping out and ultimately being incarcerated.

The costs, futility, and inhumanity of mass incarceration are clear. We would all be better off if money wasted on prisons was invested in education, economic development, and alternatives to incarceration.

After 40 years, the tide is turning. Recognizing that taxpayers spend $62,300 a year to keep one person in prison, and just $9,100 per year to keep a student in school, California is taking steps to replace zero tolerance with a restorative justice approach to school discipline. Twenty years after enacting a mandatory life sentence for “three strikes,” California also voted to soften that law, reducing some penalties, and putting money into rehabilitation.

We’re seeing other signs of progress across the country, as well. More than a decade after AFSC documented the brutalizing impact of long-term solitary confinement on prisoners, the mainstream media is calling for an end to the practice. Several states like Michigan and New York have taken steps to curtail their use of solitary, and just weeks before this issue went to press, California announced that it would move thousands of inmates out of isolation as part of a landmark legal settlement. We’re also seeing more politicians join the call to change policies that fuel mass incarceration, including sentencing laws.

Please join AFSC so we can take on mass incarceration in every state. In this issue, you’ll read about the new Quaker Network to End Mass Incarceration and how congregations can support these efforts in your community.

It’s time to become lovestruck with the children who have been pushed into a pipeline to prison. It is time for transformative justice that truly cares for all those oppressed by this New Jim Crow. Together we can make a difference.

In peace,

Shan Cretin
General Secretary 


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