On May 19, the faith and civil rights community mourned the passing of Vincent Harding, a prophetic theologian and social activist known particularly in the Mennonite world as a co-leader of a Mennonite integrated community house in Atlanta, along with his spouse, the late Rosemarie Freeney. As a colleague and adviser of Martin Luther King Jr., Harding was at times his speech writer. One speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” challenged U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and spoke out against the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.”
One does not have to go far to witness the effects of these crippling evils. The U.S. prison system has become so large and profit-driven that it is called the “prison industrial complex.” It has promoted and been fueled by a vicious cycle of racism, extreme materialism and violence. This system is unparalleled by any other country in the world.
Nearly six in 10 prisoners in the U.S. are African-American or Latino. Yet these groups comprise a mere 25 percent of the overall population. Two-thirds of all drug offenders in U.S. prisons are people of color, despite the fact that all demographic groups engage in drug offenses at a comparable rate. With statistics like these, it is difficult to deny the racism inherent in our criminal justice system.
The prison industrial complex also thrives on the capitalist structure of our society. In order to maximize profits, unnecessary prisons are built. Several small towns in Illinois built prisons to generate employment and income as other industries have declined. Recently, the Bureau of Prisons dedicated $54 million to reopen a 1,600-bed prison as a “supermax” facility in Thomson, Ill., even as the population at the only other supermax facility, in Florence, Colo., has declined in recent years.
The for-profit private prison industry has been a huge facilitator of the prison industrial complex. The Corrections Corporation of America is currently managing 53 prisons and detention centers with a capacity of more than 90,000 beds across 19 states and the District of Columbia, making CCA the largest prison operator in the U.S. after the federal government and three states. Private prisons like CCA and GEO Group are notorious for abusing prisoners and immigrant detainees and taking advantage of both inmate and staff labor.
Compared to the attention given to the brutality of wars, the violence in prisons and detention centers against inmates often goes unheard. Supermax prison facilities such as the one proposed in Thomson have imposed the most extreme level of solitary confinement on inmates, where individuals endure 23-hour isolation periods each day. Call 1-888-592-2907 and leave a message for Attorney General Eric Holder urging him not to activate the Thomson federal prison as a supermax facility and to end the use of solitary confinement in the federal prison system.
As evidenced by the racist, overtly capitalist and brutal ways of the prison-industrial complex, U.S. policies clearly fall short of God’s intention of shalom for the world. Harding and King’s words are as relevant today as they were decades ago: “If we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”
May we continue to work toward a this revolution of values as individuals, communities and as a nation.
Agnes Chen is legislative assistant and communications coordinator in the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.