June 17, 2020

Corrections Corner / Fr. Jeremy King, O.S.B.

We must overcome ‘slavery’ of those incarcerated

In these times of unrest and division in our country, the Church and even in the world, we are becoming aware of what at one time might have been minor irritations, but today have been magnified by the bombardment of our senses via mainstream news and social media.

What kind of reaction do you have today when you hear the “N” word, or hear someone mention the “LGBTQ” issue? Have you caught yourself using terms for ethnic groups that used to be funny, but people don’t laugh when you use them today? Does the “Black Lives Matter” movement irritate you? Do you think twice of using the word “gay” to mean being “happy?”

One thing these experiences have made come to light is the experiences of “implicit bias” that affect most of us from time to time. We are not even aware of them, but they are real and are often a result of our family upbringing or social environment.

There is a large segment of our population that have also been called a variety of names that have complex meanings: criminal, convict, inmate, offender, felon, jailbird, reject, pervert and even worse. These incarcerated women and men have committed crimes that have indeed been an offense to society.

Today the Department of Correction (DOC) uses a number for these people, just as the main character of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. “24601” is the prison code of Jean Valjean. It was chosen by Victor Hugo when he believed that he was conceived on the 24th of June, 1801—that is, 24-6-01. The current DOC system remains similar and stays with a person for life.

Every one of us has a name—a first, a last and often a middle name. It is a sign of closeness when someone calls us by our first name. We are all given numbers to live by as well. We cannot do much without our Social Security number, and our PINs and passwords access our electronic and online accounts.

We are obviously more than our numbers, but depending on which correction facility a person is assigned, some are not much more than a number. At most correction facilities, the officers and even counselors are instructed to use offenders’ last names if not only the number. Imagine how that feels to have that shouted at you day and night.

One word that is seldom used today about anyone—of any race or skin color—is “slave.” And yet Amendment XIII of the United States Constitution, signed into law in 1865, states in section one:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

So, yes we do have slavery and it is being practiced to some extent on persons who are incarcerated. The lives of these fellow citizens and some foreigners are being abused. We must, as Christians, care for them!

(Benedictine Father Jeremy King is a member of the archdiocese’s Corrections Advisory Committee, and is a frequent visiting chaplain for the Indiana Department of Correction.)

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