March 13: Release the Prisoners

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners.
Isaiah 61:1

I have never spent any time in jail or prison, and so my understanding of what it is like to be incarcerated is extremely limited. I can only imagine what it must be like to have one’s personal freedom restricted. 

Because I have no personal experience of being a prisoner, I also am subject to wild distortions about who makes up our prison population. I have always assumed that the people locked up are the “really bad guys,” the worst of the worst, those who must be restrained or else they will victimize others.

Over the last few years, I have become sensitized to what is really going on in our nation’s prisons. And what I have discovered is disturbing.

The “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” rhetoric which began in the 1980s, led to harsher legislation for lesser drug violations, including minimum sentences and “three strikes, you’re out” policies.

The result is that our prisons are full of people who are not violent offenders, but caught up in drugs, addiction, or simply too poor to defend themselves properly. According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, over half (53.4%) of prisoners in state prisons with a sentence of a year or longer are serving time for a non-violent offense. 

Further, 17 states currently can imprison people for debt, even though debtors’ prisons no longer formally exist (banned under federal law in 1833), nor are they constitutional. As recently as 1983, the Supreme Court affirmed that incarcerating indigent debtors was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. 

And yet the practice goes on.

The result is that our rapidly-expanding prison system is full of people who are simply victimized by their own poverty, class, race, and social location.  They are the ones who need to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah today: “proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners.”

When Jesus began his ministry in his home synagogue, he read these very words from the book of Isaiah, then said to the congregation, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” What he meant was that he was the one, the anointed one, who had come to set the prisoners free. He declared at that moment that the time of unlawful, unfair, unjust imprisonment was over. 

Interestingly, we are not told of any specific instances in which Jesus literally freed prisoners, but his teachings, parables, and works of mercy all point to a society in which people are not treated as criminals or thugs, but as individuals of dignity and worth.

The job falls to his followers to continue the work of releasing prisoners and setting free captives. What are you doing to dismantle and disrupt the massive prison-industrial complex of 21st-century America?

Prayer: God, give me compassion for those who are in prison today. Open my eyes to the injustices perpetrated on the poor and the addicted. Set me to work as a liberator, not an oppressor. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Here’s a practical way to support less harsh penalties for minor drug offenses. A bill has been introduced to the Texas Legislature which would reduce the penalties for the possession of small a mounts of marijuana. Under current Texas law, possession of 2 ounces or less is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to $2,000 fine and 180 days in jail. House Bill 81, which was introduced by Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, would make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a non-criminal offense punishable by a fine of $250. Call your state senator and representative today and urge them to pass House Bill 81, and its related Senate version, Senate Bill 170.