Creating a Cycle of Justice

by David Stewart

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

January 29, 2017

Thank you David Morgen for sharing your experiences helping women inmates at the Arrendale State Prison near Gainesville. Thank you for your service. Thank you for helping those that are least among us, and thank you for shining your light in the darkness of the prison-industrial complex.

David’s experience helping inmates grow and learn is one example of how Unitarian Universalists let their light shine to improve the world. We have so much light to give and there are many dark places that need our help. I am going to talk to you today in great detail about the prison-industrial complex. There are many other issues in America today that need to be addressed. 

I am not trying to drag you through this one depressing situation among so many depressing situations in order to make you stare into the abyss for no reason. I want you to find inspiration here in order for you to shine your light onto some corner of the world that you can improve. Your light is unique. Your light can help. Your light is needed so much more than you know. Your place is out there shining in some corner of the world that you know best so that the world is made more whole, more healed, more full and brought to the most loving, joyful place that can be created.

In 2009, the Pew Center on the States released a report that revealed that 1 in 13 adults were under some form of correctional supervision in Georgia. 7.7% of our fellow Georgians were either in prison, jail, or probation. The national average is 1 in 31, or 3.2%. More than 25% of 10 million Georgians have a criminal record on file with the Georgia Crime Information Center, increasing barriers to housing, employment and voting for these individuals. 

Georgia releases 20,000 prisoners every year back into the community and two out of three of those are arrested again, with half of those arrested will be sentenced to another prison term. So out of 20,000 released, 30% percent or over 6000 will be back in the system.

Georgia spends $21,000 per year to incarcerate a prisoner, twice the amount that the state spends towards educating one student in our public schools. Even if you don’t believe this is a moral problem, this is certainly an economic one – around where we spend money to do the most civic good.

60% of inmates in Georgia are parents. Children of these parents are more likely to perform poorly in school, to be exposed to parental substance abuse, to use drugs, to experience mental health issues, to experience domestic violence, and to live in poverty.

How can we possibly wonder why the cycle of poverty and violence continues? Let me give you a small hint: it isn’t because of any particular culture. It is because of incarceration and poverty. Our country, and our state, has never had the will to break the cycle of poverty that leads again and again to these outcomes.

So let’s talk now about incarcerated women in Georgia. Let’s delve into that darkness and shine a very small light on what leads a woman to incarceration. In terms of the Arrendale State Prison, how did these women get there? What leads a person down the dark road to commit such a heinous crime that our society feels the need to destroy their life?

A study from 2005 showed that 90% of incarcerated women suffered from interpersonal and domestic violence, often from their partner. Additionally, research has shown that most incarcerated women suffered from childhood sexual abuse. The dehumanizing violence that these women have been subjected to is something I hope that none of us ever have to experience. 

So I ask you, brothers and sisters, those of you with expertise, willingness, money or time to shine a light on this: please help victims of childhood sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence recover before they also become victims of the prison system. There is a chance for you to make a difference in this trend.

The United Way has a web site listing 33 area providers of child sexual abuse counseling.  If you have the skills to help with these difficult and delicate interventions, please consider getting in touch with them. If you don’t have clinical skills, or don’t want to take the training to gain those skills, please consider a donation to one of these organizations to help children recover from these traumas of childhood sexual abuse.

Or, brothers and sisters, there are 36 organizations on the United Way of Atlanta’s website that provide support for women that suffered battery or rape. One is the Atlanta Victim Assistance Program for Victim/Witness Services. Another option is to volunteer for a Rape Crisis Center, such as Grady Rape Crisis Center in Fulton County or liveSAFE Resources in Cobb County. The Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center accepts donations or volunteers after a training. 

Again, if you feel this is a place where your light can shine, please reach out and connect with an organization that assists women in their times of darkness.

Another area that impacts and exacerbates those incarcerated is drug addiction – likely linked to self-medicating due to abuse. 40% of women prisoners were addicted at the time they committed a crime. One third of women in prison committed crimes to buy drugs. 60% of women prisoners had histories of dependence on drugs, but less than 20% received addiction treatment.

As of 2017, we have spent more than 45 years and more than $1 trillion on America’s War on Drugs. Every 19 seconds in America, someone is arrested for violating a drug law, the 4th most common cause of arrest. In 2011, more than 1.3 million people were arrested for drug-related offenses. Of those, over half or more than 850,000 were for marijuana. Since 1971, more than 40 million people have been arrested on drug related charges.  25% of inmates are serving time for drug related offenses. 

What would our world look like if we treated drug users for addiction instead of fighting a war on anyone associated with drugs? For instance, Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001. Since they ended their War on Drugs, they have seen a decline in drug use in their population, and a decrease in the prevalence of AIDS. 

Brothers and sisters, there are alternatives: Treating addiction and drug problems as opportunities for mental health interventions reduces the push to criminalize behavior driven by mental illness, violence and lack of economic opportunity. It is how we stop feeding the prison-industrial complex bodies of the least among us.

If you can, my brothers and sisters, share a vision of more treatment and less incarceration with a legislator at the federal, state or local level in order to try to drug war policies.

What would the world look like if our law enforcement didn’t scoop up women of color in traffic stops, or via broken windows policing or via stop and frisk policies? Funneling women of color into the prison industrial complex because they were unlucky enough to be driving where police are working is not a way towards justice.

Brothers and sisters, I would encourage you to take a look at joincampaignzero.org and understand the many policy solutions that we could advocate to our legislators at all levels of government. They are good for women of color, but they build more just police departments and more just communities.

Most inmates are women of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds and suffer from a broad array of health problems, such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and malnutrition. Their health problems are strongly aggravated by the prison-industrial complex, which maximizes profits by minimizing health care, minimizing food quality and maximizing sugary, fatty, and salty foods. 

For-profit prisons also sell common necessities, such as toothbrushes, shampoo, and soap at exorbitant prices that are unaffordable by prisoners. 

I ask you, brothers and sisters, if given the opportunity, share this basic information with a legislator. Ask them to end private prisons, where the incentives work against the well-being of our fellow citizens. Instead of nurturing them and re-building their lives, we do our best as a society to tear them down. If possible, donate some basic necessities and some fresh foods to prisoners. 

Many inmates, after getting out of prison, cannot obtain work because when they are required to disclose that they have been convicted of a felony. 

And now I am here to surprise you with some good news! (You didn’t think I had any good news, did you?) In 2015, Nathan Deal signed an executive order banning the state from requiring job seekers to disclose the criminal histories in the initial application stage. This allows individuals who have paid their debt to society with years of their life to not be rejected out of hand in their attempts to obtain gainful employment. The Ban the Box campaign worked on this for years. This is a perfect example of how you, brothers and sisters, can improve the world in a very specific but meaningful way!

2.4 million American children have a parent behind bars today. 4.6 million more have a parent on probation or parole. This sums to 10% of American children who either currently have a parent behind bars or under criminal justice supervision. These children are at risk in so many ways that it defies description. 

If we were able to repurpose the money we spend on incarceration towards education, which has seen year after year of cuts in Georgia, we might find we don’t need to feed the prison-industrial beast nearly as much. We owe it to the children of our state to try our hardest to break the cycle so that they can grow to be productive citizens alongside our own sons and daughters.

Brothers and sisters, by the fruit of the Unitarian Universalist tree shall we be known.  Those of us who have Christian roots may have heard this one before: “By their fruit will you recognize them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” And you know, we Unitarian Universalists plant many, many seeds.  We plant hope.  We plant love. We nurture every kind of thing that grows, creeps, or swims on this earth, and we do it not just for our benefit, but for the benefit of those seven generations in the future.  We live a truly sustainable life, and try to bring our entire world into a sustainable, justice filled cycle.

So shine your light. Shine it on every dark place that needs a little light. Raise every valley up to shine a light in, make every mountain and hill low to remove the shadows behind the peak; make all the crooked places straight, the rough ground level and the rugged places plain so as to let your light illuminate the challenges of life’s path. You have the power in you to do amazing things, and in empowering yourself to do them, you bless the world with your light.

Ultimately, my goal here today isn’t to overwhelm you with choices or to make you pick one of my meager offerings. My goal is to point out that there are many tasks at hand.  You can be the hand of the divine. You can help bring heaven on earth. 

You, my Unitarian Universalist brothers and sisters, are needed in the fight to make our world a better place. Gather yourselves and find your own way to let your light shine out to a desperate and hurting world.