Incarcerated People Are Not Vermin

A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

I am part of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon a group of churches cooperating together to seek, among other things, justice in our criminal justice system. As part of this effort I was asked to help put together a “Criminal Justice Sabbath” which would try to raise awareness and gain support at the congregational level. I’ve been involved in various kinds of jail ministry for about seven years, so I’m grateful for this chance to reflect on that experience.


To begin, I want to make sure you noticed the reading from Ecclesiastes. Wow! That right there is what we call a hard truth. If there’s one thing almost all of us want, it’s safety. Freedom from the worry that our life might be gone in an instant (though of course it can). Freedom from realizing, as the writer of Ecclesiastes did, that goodness and wickedness receive little in the way of observable, fair reward and punishment. Oh, we have powerful myths by which we distance ourselves from these realities, such as the myth that we deserve what we have, or the myth that there are dangerous people who will take away what is rightfully ours, or the myth that we have the moral right to take away some people’s freedom if doing so will protect our lives and property.


None of those myths is false from our perspective; they keep the world spinning along pretty much as we’ve always known it. But there’s an underside that we rarely allow ourselves to see which comes from the fact that life and wealth aren’t nearly as stable as our myths tell us. And the human cost of maintaining these illusions is incredibly high. The United States incarcerates more people by far than any other nation. Our life of apparently peaceful serenity comes at a high cost, and the burden of that cost falls disproportionally on the poor. It’s their stories that I want you to hear today, to put a human face on persons whom we persistently think of as monsters or vermin.


These stories are composites, because all of them are people who might be known to you — your neighbor, your fellow parishioner, your college friend. I met a man in jail a few months ago, I’ll call him Bob, who stumbled down the rabbit hole to find his home and cars confiscated by police, his job lost, his wife and children estranged and living in another state, and he himself facing several charges that would take months to sort out while he was kept in county lockup. He didn’t have the money to pay for an ankle bracelet. A year ago he had a good construction job and a family home and a normal relationship with his neighbors. Then things fell apart and, like the Bible’s Job character, he lost everything that mattered to him.


Bob had been a soldier in Afghanistan and had a pretty bad case of PTSD, which translated into heavy alcohol use and a dangerous temper. On the night of his arrest he had been in a bar fight; then he had driven home, still in his agitated state, and was arrested on a DUI. I don’t remember all the charges that were brought against him (there’s never just one charge; always its a bunch of charges, to pressure people into plea bargains), but he was being held at county lockup awaiting trial, which took longer than it should because of the backlog in the courts. Bob’s story has a happy ending of sorts, because his veteran status gave him access to a new alcohol and PTSD treatment program. He has lost everything but his life, but he will at least be able to start over. It’s more than some get.


I met another man, whom I’ll call Darryl. Darryl is a 37-year-old black man who had been in lockups of one kind or another almost all his adult life. His parents had been drug addicts and so he was a ward of the foster care system as far back as he could remember. In his teenage years he started selling drugs and his winsome personality made him pretty successful at it. He didn’t use the drugs himself much; they were a source of income. Darryl keeps trying to “go straight” when he gets out of jail. But do you know how hard it is for someone on probation to get and keep a job? Darryl was in jail this time, not for selling drugs, but for a “parole violation.” His boss had scheduled him to work on the day he was supposed to go meet with his parole officer, and neither the officer nor his boss was willing to change their expectation, so he missed the parole officer meeting in order to keep the job. He was arrested and put in jail, just for seven days, but it was enough to get him fired. His last words to me are haunting: “I’m just so tired,” he said, with tears streaming down his face. “Tired of being in jail, tired of being out of jail, tired of being homeless. I just want to die.”


There was another man — I’ll call him Stephen — whose family had cut off all contact with him because of his erratic behavior. I could see why. In the four or five times I met him Stephen told me no fewer than three separate conspiracy stories that involved occult groups killing infants, powerful people involved in the sex slave industry, the CIA and the Mossad coming after him personally because he had worked for both and knew dangerous secrets of theirs. And there were lots of other names and places that I wasn’t able to see how they fit together or how they connected into any of the main narratives. I’m not a psychologist, but I was able to recognize signs of paranoia thoroughgoing enough that he belonged in a hospital, not a jail. But it took six months before finally he was remanded by the court to the state hospital for treatment.


I’m not telling any women’s stories because our chaplaincy corps has a policy — a wise one, I think — of having women visit women and men visit men. But there are also many women in Lane County Jail, and their stories are not too different from the ones I’ve told.


I’m telling you about these people because I want you to realize that the human beings we lock away in our jails are not animals. We would probably treat them better if they were animals. No, they are our brothers and sons, daughters and spouses and neighbors. I’m also telling you about these people because they are not very different from you and me and the people we love. I’ve known so many who are in jail because of circumstances beyond their control. Those of us who are comparatively wealthy and well educated, who have good networks of people who can help us, would be able to weather problems that the poor are unable to cope with. The English Protestant martyr John Bradford, who was imprisoned and killed in the time of Mary Tudor, said, on seeing a fellow prisoner killed, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” Once you become aware of how easy it is to get into legal jeopardy, once you realize that your ability to survive depends on your money and social standing, you can’t ever think of those who get caught in the system as less worthy than yourself.


It is the powerful who design and run criminal justice systems everywhere. The wealthy can bend the laws or even break them outright, because they can afford to pay bail and fines and hire the best attorneys. The HBO comedian and commentator John Oliver, in his episode entitled “Municipal Violations” (#31), examines things like traffic tickets, which almost everyone gets and about which no one really feels guilty. Even something as small as a jaywalking ticket can lead the poor into a situation where they’re forced to pay many times what a wealthy person has to pay, and may even have to spend time in jail. People adopt an attitude of moral superiority toward the incarcerated poor, while the reality is that they simply have fewer resources to draw on when they get into trouble.


Criminal justice reform is a political hot topic, and I don’t have enough knowledge to make specific recommendations on the public policy. But there are things we can do right now to improve the lives of people in jail. The main thing is to become involved at some level, and opportunities abound. Become a pen pal. Volunteer as a religious or educational worker. Support with your money and your time programs that help reintegrate convicted persons back into society. Hire them if you can. Get involved politically and work for criminal justice reform. The really crucial thing, though, is for us to change our attitudes about incarcerated persons, to stop thinking of them as vermin and honor their humanity. We owe it to one another, in obedience to our baptismal vows, to seek and serve Christ in them.


I invite yoiu to turn to BCP page 826 and pray #37 together. 

37.  For Prisons and Correctional Institutions

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy's sake.  Amen.