I joined the Mennonite church as a teenager. Mennonite Church USA as a denomination was still new, and I found it fitting that I was […]
I recently participated in a tour of the Philadelphia Detention Center. After doing a lot of reading about the injustice of mass incarceration in our country, including The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, I feel like my eyes have been opened to a new reality that I had previously ignored or had not chosen to see fully.
I’ve been so socialized and taught to believe that people who break the law and do the wrong thing end up in prison and that the system keeps me and others like me safe. As I’ve been reading and learning about mass incarceration in our country, I realize that much of this is a lie, and that our system is set up to unfairly punish people of color and in some ways ignore crimes of white people. I went to the Philadelphia Detention Center to see part of what it’s like on a day-to-day basis for people incarcerated there. It’s one thing to read about the prison system, but for me to continue to break down barriers and stereotypes I have, I needed to be there and see the people who are most affected by this system.
One of the most profound takeaways for me was seeing the humanity of the people who are locked up. In some ways I felt pretty awkward walking around with a group of white people and looking at and learning about people who are in prison who are mostly people of color. I chose to try to look in the eyes of as many people as I could and acknowledge them and their humanity and give them a little wave or hello. As I did this I realized I almost felt like I was walking down the street looking at everyday people going about their daily lives, except all of these people were wearing the same clothes – the prison uniform.
When I actually looked I saw all kinds of people; most were very friendly and wanting to say hello back and give a smile. I was struck by how many older men I saw and wondered how long they have been caught up in this system. I wish we had had a chance to sit down and meet with some of the inmates because I’m sure the stories they would have to tell would be eye-opening and accounts that I’ve never experienced or heard before. I would want them to know that we care and people care about them and their lives.
I was struck by how many of the guards and staff at the prison were people of color. It made me wonder how some of the staff would think about mass incarceration or how they would view the inmates with whom they work. It seemed to me that working so closely with this population may in some ways make it difficult to see the broader issue and instead be aware of the brokenness and hardness of some of the people who have been locked up. It demonstrated parallels for me when thinking of slavery and how slave owners would use some slaves to oversee other slaves. It felt like our society was using people of color to do the dirty work of incarcerating other people of color.
Some people in our congregation have begun reading Dear White Christians for a book study to think more about racial reconciliation and what we can do as a church to work toward anti-racism. One part of the book discusses the black power movement. During the black power movement, some leaders would often be asked by whites a question, “so do you believe in violence?” in order to challenge the violence of the black power movement. One of these leaders, James Cone, would often respond, “Whose violence are you talking about?”
As I visited the detention center and saw the people who were locked up there, I couldn’t help but think they are the ones being judged and having to be punished and pay for their violence or their crimes against society. But we are choosing to ignore the systematic racism that locks up a majority of black and brown people and ignoring the violence that this causes to these communities and these lives.
It seemed to me that there was a lot of shame put on the people in this prison population, and I could hear a hint of that from our wonderful tour guide who talked about Bible studies he facilitates with the inmates. I can’t imagine the emotional damage that must be done to people when they are constantly told they have done terrible things while not acknowledging the unjust ways they have been treated in our country and our society for generations. So when we’re talking about the violence of criminals, how is it that we can ignore the violence our society has forced on them in the form of systemic racism and oppression?
There was some discussion on the tour about inmates who are gay and transgender. Our tour guide told us that people who identify in these ways are put in a special unit in the prison to protect them from violence from other prisoners. He went on to say that this section of the prison, he believes, is the most violent and has the most fights and riots. I was troubled to not feel like I was hearing much compassion from him, and it felt like from the detention center itself, for this population of queer inmates.
My eyes were opened to what life must be like for this population of inmates who experience further discrimination and possibly poor treatment because of their sexuality and who they are. I think it challenges the binary of sexuality our society has. Men and women are seemingly separated in prisons for many reasons, but once we start realizing that people are not always heterosexual, it makes it more difficult to figure out how to lock people up and separate them.
Another observation I made while touring the prison was the amount of services the inmates have available to them while in prison. Our tour guide, the chaplain of the prison, was proud to tell us the detention center has its own hospital, psychiatric unit, social workers and therapy. The detention center offers Bible studies, yoga and a GED program. We were able to see these programs first-hand on our tour, and I was surprised and impressed with the services available to inmates. But I wondered how many of the inmates had this kind of support and services when they were outside of the prisons? And how many would not have ended up in prison had they received these supports in society?
In John 12, Jesus says, “Anyone who wants to work for me must follow in my footsteps, and wherever I am, my worker will be there too. Anyone who works for me will be honored by Abba God.” I believe Jesus would have been in this detention center and prisons across the country. I saw Jesus in the prisoners, the guards, the staff and the chaplain. If we want to follow Jesus, we are called to be where Jesus would be and serve those whom Jesus would serve.
Amanda Bouwman lives in Philadelphia and attends West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship.
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