Christians should care about for-profit prisons

by Bill Tammeus

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The recent U.S. Justice Department decision to phase out use of prisons run by private, for-profit contractors is welcome news.

But why should people of faith care? In some ways, it's sad even to have to ask that question. The answer should be obvious, especially to Christians. Doesn't the very God we worship, the God incarnate in Jesus Christ, ask us to visit prisoners, to care for them, to respect them, to love them?

That mandate is much broader than simply showing up at a jail once a month as part of a prison ministry team, say. Instead, the mandate requires us to be attentive to our whole criminal justice system to make sure it's fairly run and that it offers people convicted of crimes an opportunity to redeem their lives.

For the most part, however, Americans have turned this duty over to the Justice Department or to state and local officials who, in turn, have turned much of it over to profit-seeking entrepreneurs who see prisons as a way to slurp at the public trough while doing as little as possible to rehabilitate criminals, spending the bare minimum to house and feed them.

Our prison system shames us. It mocks the very words of Jesus. It treats human beings as commodities.

Our immoral system of mass incarceration -- which found its footing within the last 40 years -- has been the subject of much recent debate and of such stark books as Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

And as he did with his failure to act quickly enough to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide, former President Bill Clinton has had to eat some crow over his support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that led both to a spike in the prison population and the use of private prisons.

The recent Justice Department decision to phase out private federal prisons is, in effect, a repudiation of that Clinton legacy. And if Hillary Clinton is elected in November, she'd do well -- in harmony with her willingness to proclaim herself a United Methodist interested in social justice -- to further that repudiation of her husband's flawed prison system policies.

But she almost certainly will have to fight some terrific headwinds if she wants to support the Justice Department's decision. Lots of people have made lots of money building and running these facilities. And many small communities have seen them as good for the local economy.

But what may be good for the economy of West Prisonbar, Ala., may, in fact, be terrible for the divine economy, which is not about making money off commoditized people but, rather, about redeeming wounded lives.

So despite the federal choice to quit using private prisons, the potential opponents of the decision may hold considerable sway among the federal political class, which knows a thing or two about doing things that may fly in the face of religious teachings but that make political sense.

In announcing the Justice Department's decision, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates declared that private prisons "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department's Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."

The announcement also noted that between 1980 and 2013, the federal prison population grew by some 800 percent.

That statistic alone should be sending off loud alarm bells for people of faith who view imprisoned human beings not as cogs in an economic wheel but as children of God who need help from other children of God.

As this national election gets closer, all of us would do well to be asking candidates for all federal elective offices whether they support the Justice Department's decision. You know what to do if they don't.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at]

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