A Change of Heart and Mind: Thoughts on Mass Incarceration in America

At the heart of what we believe are two fundamental ideas that have huge social, political, economic as well as personal implications: imago Dei and metanoia. That every human being bears the image of the Creator, and is valued and loved by God surely means that human beings have social responsibilities to and for one another. That Metanoia, a Greek term often translated “repentance”, but more accurately means a complete turnaround, a change of heart and mind, a new way of thinking and being, is a reality, a real possibility for every one of us, also has enormous implications. Both concepts come into play when it comes to deciding that one of us needs to be incarcerated, removed from the community and held in secure confinement. It seems to me that while we give mental and verbal assent to these two central Christian concepts, we do our actual living in the world very differently.

Two resources recently stirred up my own thinking. The first of these is Jeanne Bishop’s thoughtful book, Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace With My Sister’s Killer. In the book, my friend Jeanne Bishop challenged me by questioning the justice of locking up her sister’s killer for life without parole, simply by observing the basic Christian duty to love neighbor as a fellow child of God and to make good on our promise to forgive as we have been forgiven, something most of us pray weekly. Do heinous crimes negate those moral responsibilities? Most of us, I think, compromise in the interest of what we consider reality: some criminal acts are so evil that the perpetrator should be locked up for life without any hope of release. I have always been comfortable favoring life without parole instead of capital punishment as at least a nod in the direction of a Christian morality. Jeanne Bishop simply suggests that our comfortable attitudes do not equate with our religious affirmations and commitments.
In the meantime the criminal justice system in our county is seriously broken. The old debate about whether incarceration is for the purpose of punishment or rehabilitation has been resolved in our culture by the widespread and politically popular intent to get tough on crime and criminals. The result is that the United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world.

A second source which stirred my thinking on incarceration recently is an academic paper, “Mass Incarceration as a Trap: Challenges to Re-entry for Released Inmates” which my son Andrew wrote as part of his work toward a Masters Degree in Urban Strategy and Planning at the University of Illinois. The paper observes that mass incarceration has happened fairly recently. In 1972, 161 people in 100,000 were incarcerated in America. Then we got tough on crime and declared war on drugs. By 2007 the incarceration rate in our country had jumped to 767 in 100,000. The rate has declined slightly since 2010 but is still the highest in the world by a large margin.

Social science identifies several causes for this increase: sentencing became tougher, universal incarceration for even minor drug offenses, and worsening conditions in inner cities throughout the nation. The mammoth loss of urban manufacturing jobs and resultant middle class flight has left what one sociologist calls “pockets of severe and concentrated poverty.” At the same time, mass incarceration of African American males has further disrupted inner city life.

The National Research Council says that the current criminal justice system advances social control at the expense of social justice. That is a profoundly disturbing conclusion. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the shift to more punitive measures is simply the latest phase of control of African Americans following slavery and Jim Crow, and is fueled by a “growing prison- industrial and criminal justice complex.”

Imprisonment in this country is long on punishment and shamefully short on rehabilitation. Inmates are released from prison in Illinois with a pair of prison sweatpants, $10 and a one-way bus ticket. Many have nowhere to go, slip easily into homelessness and crime and end up back in prison.

There are 2 million Americans in jail. Not many are receiving services that might be described as rehabilitative. The National Alliance for Mental Health estimates that 400,000 of those prisoners are dealing with significant mental health issues. Here in Chicago, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who oversees the massive Cook County jail, says he thinks of the jail as the largest mental health facility in the country.

If there is a bright side to this grim picture it is that a bipartisan consensus seems to be emerging that the system is both a moral failure and a fiscal disaster. Finally we are understanding that politicians who prey on fear and trumpet their promise to get tough on crime in order to get elected were not only wrong but have created a shameful national tragedy. We need a healthy dose of political honesty and metanoia.


  1. Totally agree. I see this first hand. Well said!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: