December 15, 2018
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Why I’m writing another useless essay about prison

Courtesy of Trent Bell
Courtesy of Trent Bell
Inmates at Maine State Prison posed for Biddeford photographer Trent Bell as part of his project "Reflect: Convicts letters to their younger selves."

In 2011, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts wrote an article, “Telling the truth that no one wants to believe.” It strikes at the heart of what ails America as we lurch from one extreme to another in state and national politics.

Pitts makes the case for government’s role no longer being the protection of and promotion of the general welfare of its citizens but the defense of our pathologies by redefining reality for an angry and dissatisfied citizenry.

‘This will be a useless essay’

Pitts begins by referring to his essay in this way: “This will be a useless essay, written for one reason only; to protect the writer’s mental health. If the writer did not write it, you see, there is a great danger that his head would explode.”

His reference point was a measure in Florida that would make it more difficult for non-violent felons who served their time to regain their right to vote. Inasmuch as African-Americans and Hispanics comprise a disproportionate share of the incarcerated (70 percent), the political ramifications are obvious.

The otherwise innocuous bill became a gateway measure to codify beliefs such as those expressed by one blogger, “Did it ever occur to you that black men often choose the criminal path as their vocation because they see it as a get-rich-scheme that requires less work ethic?”

Another blogger wrote, “Don’t become a felon, and you need not worry.”

As an occasional writer of newspaper columns, I got to thinking about the denial that flows through the criminal justice system in our nation.

The greater good of incarceration

The greater good of incarcerating the mentally ill and homeless for cluttering our sidewalks is to provide them a place to live after defending themselves without friends and family, too often assisted by ineffective officers of the court.

It is a form of urban renewal, moving transients from one neighborhood to another, keeping them off balance.

The greater good of locking up druggies, sex offenders, drunk drivers, blacks, Hispanics and abusive husbands is to protect the culture of Gotham City, whose career-bound parents must depend on others to keep their kids safe. The visual reminder of our social justice failures is tucked away in overcrowded jails and prisons in numbers unmatched by any other nation on earth.

Memorials to fallen staff

Our state and county departments of corrections are hamstrung with the unenviable task of justifying themselves on the grounds that theirs is a job motivated primarily to keep both prisoners and the public safe.

In fact, high recidivism rates have taught the public that it has more to fear from released prisoners than it does from potential first-time offenders.

At Maine State Prison, there is a memorial dedicated to fallen heroes of corrections, including Warden Richard Tinker, the only staff member ever to have died in the line of duty. He died on May 14, 1863, from a stab wound to the neck.

The memorial is to remind us that prison employment is not only a noble profession, it is a dangerous one, or at least it was on one bad day in 1863.

In due respect to descendants of the good Warden Tinker, prison jobs rank far lower in injury and death rates than do such Maine-stays as commercial fishing and lumbering. Were it not for the half-dozen or more prisoners who have met with untimely deaths of late in the Maine prison system, the public might be persuaded to think of our jails and prisons as institutions of civility and self-control.

The river denial flows on

The “war on drugs,” while a noble stab at public safety, has given rise to competition among law enforcement agencies for the cash flow from confiscated property under asset forfeiture laws.

The Sex Offender Registry, while laudable in alerting the public to potential danger in our neighborhoods, has less to do with the fear of perverts lurking around school yards and more to do with masking the reality that most sex offenders are close friends and family members of their victims.

Yes, Mr. Pitts, we hear you. Count mine among America’s most useless essays.

Rev. Stan Moody is senior pastor at Columbia Street Baptist Church in Bangor and a former chaplain at the Maine State Prison. He’s also founder and director of the Columbia Street Project, a resource center to empower families and individuals struggling with backgrounds in the criminal justice system.

This piece is part of a contributor series about the difference between charity and justice. Through Faith Linking in Action, an initiative of Brewer-based Food AND Medicine, leaders and lay people alike are sharing their insights. How do various beliefs and backgrounds relate to the needs of people in poverty? What do charity and justice mean in today’s world? If you’re interested in joining the conversation, submit a piece that’s no longer than 700 words to BDN editor Erin Rhoda at erhoda@bangordailynews.com.


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