by Doug Pagitt
Three weeks ago I was in jail. It was a difficult and unnerving and life-changing experience.
I was part of an action to protest our country’s policy of killing people held in custody, which I believe is morally wrong and against rule of law.
In short, I was one of 18 people who held a banner on the steps of the United States Supreme Court that read STOP EXECUTIONS. That act precipitated the Supreme Court Police placing me and 17 others under arrest for “Parading, Assemblages and Displaying” on Supreme Court Property.
I was in the custody of the Supreme Court Police, the Washington, D.C. Police, and the United States Marshals for 32 hours. Unlike many of the people who are jailed in this country, I had a pretty good idea that my arrest was coming, and I had planned for it, leaving me with more resilience and resources than many who are arrested. In spite of that, my time in jail was challenging in ways I couldn’t have expected.
To be clear, I was not in prison. I was in custody and central processing in Washington, D.C. I only experienced the start of the process of prison. I have visited prisons and talked with prisoners. My own father was a prisoner. What I experienced was a fraction of what the women and men who are incarcerated for long periods endure.
Though my time was short, the experience left me with a deeper sense of empathy for those arrested and a deeper anger and skepticism toward the system of arrest and confinement we use in the United States. It showed me how embedded the use of power, violence, intimidation, isolation, and dehumanization is to our Criminal Justice System. While there were a few individual officers who were quite humane to me, and I know that those people exist throughout the system, exceptional actions by these few cannot eliminate systemic brutality.
This system creates a separate category, “criminal,” that allows us to treat citizens, ourselves, as sub-human. And we cannot ignore the fact that the arrest and detainment system is rank with racial and class discriminations, which allows prejudice power.
What I realized after my arrest and confinement is that awareness of these issues is directly related to one’s contact with the system. Too often those without direct contact simply do not know or notice the conditions that affect their fellow citizens.
But to be clear, there are a whole lot of us directly impacted by it. According to FBI statistics: “Nationwide, law enforcement made an estimated 10,797,088 arrests in 2015.” Think about that, nearly 11 million times in 365 days someone was arrested in this country. That is 29,581 arrests per day. More than 1,200 arrests per hour every hour of every day. That is a stunning number of people who have found themselves in contact with the “arrest and detainment system” in the United States.
There are also a huge number of people on the arresting side. There is in excess of 900,000 “sworn law enforcement officers” in the United States who have the ability to arrest and detain a person.
When you consider the families of those arrested and those doing the arresting you begin to see the scope, the number of people impacted by what is referred to as “the industrial prison complex” in the United States.
Those of us who are not part of the 11 million arrests or the nearly 1 million people doing the arresting may think that the Criminal Justice System does not impact us aside from “keeping us safe,” but I would argue that it makes a indelible mark on the spirit and conscience of our society. As long as the dehumanization of any of our citizens is possible, we are all at risk and implicated. Moreover, our system is adept at creating repeat offenders, which does little to improve safety.
We allow for the dehumanization by categorical distinctions which excuse the mistreatment of people. Those distinctions are present in the way we refer to those who have been in the Criminal Justice System. Notice this week when you hear and use language that reinforces this difference and distinction—words like “criminal,” “convict,” “prisoner,” “felon.” Try instead to see all people as part of the “us” we are called to love and work this week to stop reinforcing the false narratives of us and them and live in the reality of All of Us.
My encouragement for us this week is to consider the teaching of Jesus that “God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.” And that we are called to love all the same - enemy and neighbor; those who love us and those who don’t; those who violate our laws and statues and those who don’t.
Let us believe and live as Jesus says: Complete in our love just as our heavenly Parent is complete in showing love to everyone.