Driving home from visiting a state prisoner for Christmas today, I was struck by how many prisons and detention centers are in towns (and wasteland) right off of the I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson – most located in Pinal County. Eloy is one such town – “city”, rather, as I discovered when I turned off of the highway at one of their exits.
Lo and behold, not only is Eloy teeming with prisons (4 of Correction Corporation of America‘s 6 institutions of incarceration are located there, including Red Rock and Saguaro Correctional Centers), but it is also apparently a City of God. Christ’s Father, that is.
Now, I actually found hope in that sign, but there are a lot of ways that could be read. Eloy, like virtually all prison towns, feeds largely on the lives of people imprisoned there from other places – mostly poor neighborhoods of big cities like Phoenix. Just listen to how prisons are sold to hungry communities: while saving the state money they promise revenue to build local schools with, jobs to fuel the economy, and bodies to add to the census and political pocketbook – bodies of people who have been stripped not only of their freedom as punishment, but also of the one right that most distinguishes U.S. citizens from non-citizens: the right to vote.
How that perverse penalty for most felons, regardless of the severity of their crime, is not considered a violation of the 8th Amendment in light of Trop v. Dulles, I don’t know. I have my own feelings about citizenship in this country, but that’s another blog post for another time. The point is that in a case in which a soldier was stripped of citizenship, the Supreme court found that “the total destruction of the individual’s status in organized society… is a form of punishment more primitive than torture, for it destroys for the individual the political existence that was centuries in the development. The punishment strips the citizen of his status in the national and international political community. His very existence is at the sufferance of the country in which he happens to find himself…”
It’s worth looking at, this whole felon dis-enfranchisement thing. It’s a holdover from the Reconstruction era when former slaves were criminalized just so they couldn’t vote or live free. That was well over a century ago. What are we still doing it for? I think it’s one big contributing element to guards dehumanizing prisoners such that they can perpetrate the most disturbing violence on them without much regard to consequences – the fact that we already collectively diminished their basic rights.
In any event, American prisoners are not only widely marketed, traded and sold as commodities because states pay to confine them, but – as an end run around the Emancipation Declaration – they are even constitutionally defined as slaves. Both their labor and their mere existence are exploited to generate income for “host” (actually, “parasitic”) communities, private investors, corporate and municipal employers of prisoners, vendors of all sorts – from those supplying commissaries/canteens to those monopolizing lucrative contracts for collect calls home to impoverished families.
The most revered beneficiaries of the criminalization and incarceration of vast numbers of the poor are those whose livelihoods (and children’s medical care) depend on “fighting crime,” “insuring justice,” and “promoting public safety”. Let’s not forget our beloved politicians, too. They rake in money, adoration, and power from that in all sorts of ways.
Add all those folks up and it’s no surprise that our society – particularly this state – fails to invest in proven strategies for reducing crime and victimization in favor of disenfranchising and dis-empowering those people who might resist the machinery that so violently destroys their lives and communities in retaliation for their offenses against property and the state.
One such person engaged in resistance would have been Christ. He really was a freedom-fighter, actually. A lot of people conveniently forget this, but he was a prisoner, too. Remember that line about “whatsoever you do for the least of these, you do for me”? He was talking about prisoners, among others.
So, to say that “the world needs Jesus” could mean that the world needs more prisoners, or it could mean that the world needs more forgiveness and grace. It could mean we need more bodies to buy and sell – and more consumers and workers to exploit for profit – or it could mean we need to overturn the moneylenders’ tables and loudly protest the torture of our prisoners at the hands of sadistic and vindictive guards.
I don’t know what the City of Eloy means to say by promoting Christ in the world – they will have to show us that themselves. I know what Jesus said about poverty, exploitation, judging others harshly, and caring for our prisoners. It’s all spelled out pretty clearly in the Gospels. If you read only one, choose Matthew. Hit the Sermon on the Mount and then Matthew 25:35-40 in particular. Then tell me if the world needs more prisoners, or more mercy. More punishment or more care...
We have been at war in Afghanistan for nine years now, and in Iraq for almost as long (or more than twice as long, if you count the casualties of the sanctions). That’s longer than any declared war in our national history, and there’s really no end in sight, despite what time-lines the President offers. We’re still sending our youth off to kill or be killed in the name of liberty and justice for all around the world, while doing so little to defend those two values here at home.
I find that unacceptable.
My wish for the new year is that the spirit of the Christ whose life and teachings I myself have learned something from is recognized and honored in every prisoner we hold in our facilities of detention, correction, and punishment – particularly by those among us who identify as “Christian”. They seem to hold most of the keys to those places, ironically.
If the City of Eloy is truly a City of God, as it would seem they purport to be – then the Pinal County Sheriff and prosecutor would go after the abusive guards at Saguaro as swiftly and surely as CCA will go after the prisoners who rioted at Red Rock this week. They would not fear the political reprisal of honest citizens for doing so. If anything they would be seen as heroic for aggressively championing the human rights of people literally in chains who are at the mercy of their tormentors.
Likewise, if Eloy is a City of God, then CCA wouldn’t get away with defending the employee misconduct at their institutions that we’ve heard about this month from Hawaiian prisoners. They would be out in front of this lawsuit, disciplining and referring the guards in question – as well as the warden there – for criminal prosecution, which the local criminal justice system would jump on. Of course, last I saw CCA was defending the despicable videotaped brutality of their guards in Idaho, too, so I don’t expect that much of them. But I expect more of a City of God.
The state feeds us fear to maintain power, but in truth most American prisoners haven’t physically harmed anyone but themselves. Even many who are charged with “violent” crimes never struck a soul. Robbing a bank with nothing more than a squirt gun or a note, for example, is considered a “violent” crime. So is brandishing a box cutter at security guards chasing you down for shoplifting (that got one mentally ill kid I adore 5 years, including a year in Supermax).
Now, if those are violent crimes, what do we call repeatedly assaulting and threatening to rape, torture, and kill helpless people? Why is every City of God not up in arms? Which of our brothers are we forgiving for what, and whose cries are we drowning out with our choirs on Sundays? Shall we continue to extract an eye for a dollar or a tooth for every rebuke of the state, and pay a dollar of our own money to those who threaten to extinguish prisoners’ lives?
That isn’t even how it was supposed to work in the Old Testament, much less the one dominated by Jesus.
I’ve been born more than once, I am sure, but because of the way Christ’s life and message and symbols have been abused, I don’t call myself a “Christian” or abide by the mandates of any religion. I just try my best to live by the principles and values that ring true to me, most of which are common but not exclusive to the Christian faith. Self-professed Christians out there need to consider for themselves what his truth is and how to live it; I just wish that if they identify Jesus as their role model they would follow his guidance a little more closely. The world would be a bit better for it…and we wouldn’t constantly be at war in his name, either.
Christ, I have no doubt, would deeply disapprove of our system of “justice” in America – particularly Arizona – and how we perpetrate violence on our prisoners. After all, he was criminalized for defying both capital and the state, and lived and died as a prisoner himself. As I read it, he went out that particular way for a reason, too.
Anyway, for the sake of the thousands of disenfranchised, incarcerated and otherwise detained souls whose misery they have profited from, I hope Eloy is a City of Jesus’ version of God. How they and CCA deal with the perpetrators of abuse in their prisons will tell us much more than the signs they’ve placed at their gates do.