How Does Criminal Justice System Treat Inmates?

Post a Comment » Written on September 8th, 2009     
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CHICAGO, IL (September 8, 2009) – This is the second in a five-part series on Criminal Justice and the Church. The author is John Tanagho, a member of the Christian Action Commission and Sojourner Covenant Church. He is an attorney with a Chicago law firm.

By John Tanagho

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering (Hebrews 13:3).

I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand . . . to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness (Isaiah 42: 6a-7).

One of the issues that the draft criminal justice resolution seeks to highlight is how the system treats inmates.

TuesdayMeet Matt (not his real name), an inmate in a federal prison. He entered prison in 1994 at the age of 21 after being convicted for participating in a crack cocaine dealing ring (along with several other co-defendants). He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, although his sentence was later reduced to about 20 years due to a federal sentencing amendment. He is scheduled to be released in 2012.

I recently spoke with Matt about how he ended up in prison, his experiences there, his perspectives on the criminal justice system, and how people can help ex-offenders. Here is what he had to say to us.

Q: Why do think you ended up in prison?
A: I was 21 when I got locked up. I lacked guidance as far as going beyond high school. I was pretty much limited. The teens in here now don’t have a sense of direction.

Q: What was your experience like when you were first incarcerated?
A: I went through a process of being angry. Then I tried to correct it and make the change that’s needed. At first you don’t have a clear vision. Then you try to re-establish family ties. You just can’t lose your sense of hope.

Q: What have you missed most since entering prison?
A: Family ties and my bond with my family. It’s hard to stay in touch with family, especially children. They don’t know you because you don’t have a physical bond with them.

Q: How have you seen inmates treated in prison?
A: A lot of the prison guards treat people like animals. Some treat you like a human being, it just depends. We’re still people and should be treated like that.

Q: What’s been the low-point of your time in prison?
A: Being away from my children. That sense of loss.

Q: What has been the highpoint?
A: I received a certification in counseling and can be an assistant to a counselor and do intakes. I became registered with the department of labor as quality inspector. I’ve learned a lot about computers.

Q: What are your plans when you’re released?
A: My plan is to try to re-establish family ties, that physical and mental bond with my family, especially my children. That is what’s most important.

Q: Are you concerned about what you will do once released?
A: I’m concerned about getting a job because of the economy. I have tried to acquire job-related skills while in prison.

Q: If you had one thing to tell people about the criminal justice system, what would you say?
A: Just because someone is in prison doesn’t mean they are a bad person. The system turns its back on people, it just throws people away. There is no emphasis on rehabilitation. There are some programs but not a lot. I don’t think the system is fair.

Q: How can we prevent people from ending up in prison?
A: People should be made aware about the law and explain it to those in the community – people in the community don’t know about the law. You have to know the law.

Q: How can people help those leaving prison and reentering the community?
A: We need job skills, wraparound services like housing. We need help to re-establish family ties and get bare essentials needed to reintegrate in society.

After speaking with Matt, I thanked him for his time. I had interrupted his participation in a work program at the prison, although I never bothered to ask what he was doing. Matt faces an uphill battle to say the least. Felony convictions have a way of changing people’s perceptions of an individual (not to mention their ability to vote, get a job). Who will help Matt find a job, a place to live? Will the church reach out to him and invite him in as a brother, a friend? Will he find a sense of community in our sanctuaries, our backyards, our conversations?

Editor’s note: During this year’s Annual Meeting, the Christian Action Commission presented a draft resolution on Criminal Justice that will be voted on during next year’s Annual Meeting. Local churches and individuals are encouraged to read and discuss the draft resolution and provide feedback to the commission no later than October 1. Click here to read the resolution. Feedback may be submitted by email to the commission by clicking here. For more information on the commission and its work, click here. To read the first article in the series, select below:

Criminal Justice Awareness Week Is Here

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