The Predicament of Being (In)Justice Involved

“Whenever we cage people, we are in reality fueling and participating in the same spirit we claim to renounce. In the biblical understanding, the spirit of the prison is the spirit of death.”[1] ~Lee Griffith

The year was 2014. The charges had been dropped. Justice was finally home with his family and two daughters. This time it was going to be different, he said.  He was different and ready for a new way of existing in the world.  For far too many years, his relationship with the criminal justice system was fueled by his relationship to alcohol and drug abuse.  This time, in 2014, Justice was ready to travel a new path.  Burning deep within him was a commitment to sobriety, spirituality, and economic stability through gainful employment.  Justice desired to obtain that sense of pride that comes through providing for oneself and their family.  While working for minimum wage job on a construction site, Justice actively sought higher paying blue-collar employment.  But no amount of effort in the marketplace could produce the means for him to actualize his very own slice of the American Dream.  The four-year road that led to Justice reoffending (or recidivating) was nuanced and complex but the lack of employment opportunity that offered a livable wage were the first two barriers on his journey.  

Some would dichotomize the phenomena of recidivism in Justice’s experience as nature vs. nurture, giving little attention to how “environmental factors and genetic factors work interactively. Thus, it is both factors that ultimately have the capacity to produce antisocial behaviors, such as crime and delinquency.”[2]  In this essay I will focus on reentry barriers as part of an overarching macrosystem (evironmental factors) that influence the returning citizen’s microsystem (interpersonal decisions).  A macrosystem is defined as “cultural values, customs, and laws” that have a “cascading influence” on microsystems which “encompasses the relationships and interactions [of a person’s] immediate surroundings.”[3]  

Drawing upon the research of Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crowand Jennifer McBride in Radical Discipleship,I will argue that discriminatory reentry practices and policies function as social bondage that is fused together by the competing beliefs of retribution and meritocracy.  Consequently, re-entry practices become re-entry barriers that instigate individual acts of recidivism. 

The Spirit of Bondage: Reentry Barriers

The American Criminal justice system has nearly 6,000 correctional facilities where 2.3 million people of which 60% are Black and Hispanic are locked in cages.  Just as the vast majority of the prison population is hidden from public purview so is the truth that 94% of prisoners are released from prison. The released population represents 7 million people under correctional surveillance (such as parole, probation or electronic monitoring), 19 million formerly incarcerated, and then there is the “65 million Americans with criminal records, including tens of millions…who have been arrested but never convicted of any offense or convicted only of minor misdemeanors.”[4]  

While every year “641,000 people walk out of prison gates…people go to jail over 11 million times each year”[5]  This cyclical funnel from incarceration (jail/prison) to reentry is known as recidivism.  Studies report that 17% of those released will reoffend within the first year, 40% within the third year, and a study from 2005 indicated that 75% will be rearrested within 5 years of release.[6]  

If prisons are in fact, as Griffith contends, the material presence of the spirit of death, why would a recently freed person jeopardize their freedom by re-offending?  

Only those relegated to the “criminal” class have the clearest, most accurate and authentic lens to expose the answer. During a workshop I organized on the history of mass incarceration for a group of recently released entrepreneurs, the answer emerged:

“The system is designed to make me fail.  No matter how hard I try, the system wants me to fail,” said the entrepreneur.  

His statement reflects his personal experience with a schizophrenic justice system—operating as a macrosystem—that simultaneously bolsters two competing beliefs and practices: retribution and meritocracy.[8.1]  

Making connections between mass incarceration and Jim Crow laws, Alexander asserts: “once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination–employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service–are suddenly legal.”[7]  Collectively these laws constitute a race and class-based macrosystem of re-entry barriers, similar to Jim Crow laws, that control the amount of access the criminal class has when participating in the public sphere and meeting basic needs. Putting it bluntly, Alexander goes on to say, “as a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.  We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”[8.2]  Applying Alexander’s logic, reentry laws and practices operate as an “evil instrument of human societies bent on condemnation, exclusion and destruction” aimed at those whom society has deemed the other.[9]  

On one hand, as Alexander outlined, the criminal class is met with retributive laws, practices of discrimination and exclusion from the very necessary resources, institutions and networks that give them membership to meeting basic needs and achieving social and economic mobility.  At the same time, meritocracy communicates that the criminal class only needs self-determination and strong work ethic to obtain gainful employment, maintain economic stability, achieve social status and economic mobility.  Meritocracy erroneously implies a bootstrap mentality, which communicates that social and economic success are solely the product of individual efforts and self-reliance.  

This logic makes the American Dream a myth because the so-called American Dream requires social and political currency that is reserved for select, socially privileged groups.  Illustrating this point McBride asserts, “meritocracy denies the vast role of unearned privileges on the one hand and entrenched structural barriers on the other when trying to explain the success or lack thereof of particular groups of people.”  Benefactors of the so-called American Dream tend to erroneously confuse self-determination with self-reliance, being unaware that access to fair housing and lending practices, unbiased employment practices, resourced neighborhoods, quality education and just jurisprudence are also public policies, laws and beliefs that make the so-called American Dream accessible for some while making it arduous and almost impossible for others to obtain.

In short, self-reliance, as it relates to the American Dream, does not exist apart from dependence on social and political benefits.  These privileges are restricted from the criminal class through the retributive macrosystem of laws and practices that characterize re-entry barriers.  Upon release the criminal class is transferred from the physical cage of incarceration to the cage of social bondage, reentry barriers.  While there are societal expectations on how the so-called criminal class is to be productive in society, they too have aspirations and desires of their own, apart from societal expectations, for economic stability and gainful employment. Too often, not of their own doing, the only lucrative and assessable economy available leads to recidivism. 

Closing Remarks“Confronting Our Blindness”

In the essay The Social Construction of DifferencesAllan G. Johnson reminds us that “Privilege exist when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they have done or failed to do.”[10]  Both oppression and privilege are interlocking systems so that the dividing lines between agent and victim or oppressed and oppressor are in reality fluid. While my status as a woman of color exposes me to the oppression and violence of patriarchy, sexism and racism, my membership as a cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, middle-class, professional shields me from the oppression and violence of heterosexism, religionism, and classism.  Without “confront[ing] the ideologies and myths that keep us blind,” we consciously and subconsciously participate in oppression whether we want to or not; it is the air that we all breath.

Drawing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wisdom, McBride exhorts privileged communities in general and privileged faith communities in particular to choose not to be blind by critiquing the causes of injustice over the effects, avoiding “intellectual laziness” with a “willful study—investigations of the historical roots, structural evolutions, and present manifestations of evil forces.”[11]  She goes on, challenging the privileged to fight for “structural solutions that challenge the social domination and inequality in our nation and to privilege the voices, stories and experiences of those who suffer under the yoke of domination and oppression[12]Choosing to not remain blind is an act of resistance that refuses to cooperate with oppressive systems of domination. 

[1]Lee Griffith, The Fall of the Prison: Biblical Perspective on Prison Abolition, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 106.

[2]Kevin Beaver, “Concentration and Transmission of Crime” in Criminal Justice Behavior, Vol. 40 No. 2, February 2013.

[3]Dede Paquette and John Ryan, “Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory”, 2. 

[4]Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, (NY: The New Press, 2012), 60 and 147.

[5]Peter Wagner and Bernadette Raby, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017” in Policy Initiative

[6]Vincent Caruso, “Report: Recidivism to Cost Illinois more than 13 billions over 5 years”, accessed on October 23. 

[7]Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, (NY: The New Press, 2012), 2

[8.1][Retribution by definition means repayment and is often used in a negative sense for the punishment for crimes. The practice of retribution is complicated, but for the purposes of this paper, retribution referrers to the excessive practice of punishment that equates to revenge, which prohibits the so-called criminal from human flourishing. Meritocracy is the belief that hard work and determination alone lead to social success.   

[8.2]Ibid., 2.

[9]Jennifer McBride, Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of The Gospel, (MN: Fortress Press, 2017),157.

[10]Allan G. Johnson in “The Social Construction of Difference” in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th edition, ed., Adams, Maurianne, Warren J. Blumenfeld, D. Chase J. Catalano, Keri Dejong, Heather W. Hackman, Larissa E. Hopkins, Barbara Love, Madeline L. Peters, Davey Shlasko, Ximena Zuniga, (NY: Routledge, 2018)

[11]Jennifer McBride, Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of The Gospel, (MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 192-193.

[12]Ibid., 193.

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