The reality of the prison industrial complex is one that negatively affects persons (the majority of which are people of color) all over this country. Presently, the United States houses over a quarter of the world’s prison population despite representing only 1% of the world population. Upwards of 2 million Black and Brown bodies presently find themselves locked behind bars. Statistics show that most of the African Americans who end up incarcerated have been sentenced for non-violent offenses or possession of infinitesimal amounts of illegal narcotic.
Mistreated while inside of these facilities and marginalized when released from them, the lives of these people are not seen as viable, valuable, or meaningful to our society. The iniquitous struggle that so many of our brothers and sisters have to endure in order to find adequate housing, wages, and employment are reflective of the way the society (a society that they have, in theory, paid a debt to) perceives their worthiness.
But what if the populace viewed those victimized by the reality of mass incarceration with a different perspective? An outlook that regards those who have been imprisoned as contributors instead of convicts. Perhaps the best thing for our democracy is to have more faith in those who may have a felony and to find merit in those who may have a misdemeanor.
As avant garde as this advanced attitude may seem, it actually has its foundations in Biblical writ. I propose and suppose that the Old Testament ought guide our thinking on the matter. In the 1st book of the Bible, we find a familiar story; the story of a young man with the gift of interpreting dreams by the name of Joseph. Chapter 39 in the Book Of Genesis finds Joseph on the job, wrongfully convicted of sexual misconduct charge and thrown into prison for a crime he didn’t commit. While locked up, Joseph has the opportunity to help those incarcerated with him by using his talent to interpret their dreams. In the 41st chapter of Genesis, the Bible tells us that when his cellmates are released they (eventually) share with Pharaoh the beauty and benefit of Joseph’s ability. Pharaoh is in need of his own dreams being interpreted and not only has Joseph released but also gives Joseph the opportunity to use his God-given gifts to the benefit of the king and the kingdom. Pharaoh looks past Joseph’s past and elevates him to a position in the palace where he can best contribute to the betterment of the country.
In this instance, we ought parallel Pharaoh’s practice and not allow someone’s time spent in a prison cell to keep us from seeing the potential for greatness inside of them. Our prisons are in need of reform. Not only do our prisons need revising, but the way we think of those who occupy them (or have previously occupied them) needs revising as well. In order for this nation to prosper, correctional facilities have to be restructured to focus on rehabilitation and reformation instead of correction and captivity. And those who may have a criminal past must be given a fair and equal opportunity to contribute to our future. Otherwise, we prompt and push them into lives they were previously penalized for.
Joseph (or Josephine) doesn’t need our compunction or condemnation. Instead of judging Joseph, instead of labeling or limiting Joseph, we need to give Joseph the opportunity to live out what God intends for him to as best he can. Joseph needs an opportunity; a chance to mobilize what may have been lying dormant inside of him.
If you want to help Joseph, don’t give Joseph a disrespectful dissertation advising them on how to live his life. Don’t give Joseph a handout and deny Joseph the dignity of earning what he needs to take of himself. Don’t disqualify Joseph from being a substantial grantor of goodness in this world. If you want to help Joseph, give Joseph the same chances and opportunities that were afforded you on your way from strain to stability. If you want to help Joseph, suppress the systems that discriminate against him and sentence him to substandard living even after his sentence has been carried out. If you really want to help Joseph, in the name of our Lord, give Joseph a job.
*Dedicated to Pop, Paul, Mohammed, Jay, Darnell, and all of those who are or have been incarcerated…keep your head up.