What We Have Here Is A Failure To Connect

March 9, 2014 / Horizon Staff / Sprague Lecture Series

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, and James Logan, author of Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment, were the featured speakers at the Sprague Lecture Series Saturday, March 8th in Columbus. This year’s lecture series was titled Christian Ethics and the Crisis in U.S. Criminal Justice. Bishop C. Joseph Sprague gave the opening remarks “What We Have Here Is A Failure To Connect.” The Sprague Lectures of March 8th will be followed up with a Eat/Learn/Live series on Wednesday evenings. Two action steps of the Sprague Lecture Series is to increase charitable giving and volunteer activity at Horizon Prison Initiative. Here is the text of Bishop Sprague’s opening remarks…

INTRODUCTION-When it comes to “Christian Ethics and the Crisis in U.S. Criminal Justice”, to paraphrase Paul Newman, as “Cool Hand Luke,” in the movie with the same name, “What We Got HereIs Failure to Connect.”Failure to Connect with the American Dream;Failure to Connect with what works in the building and sustaining of redemptive human relationships; and, Failure to Connect with what the Gospel affirms and “Christian Ethics” require of all who would follow Jesus.

Sprague“What We Got Here Is Failure to Connect”–with the American Dream. A resonant dream planted deep within the American soul that affirms “we are endowed with certain inalienable rights and that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet, two and half million U.S. citizens are incarcerated in this nation, 26% of the incarcerated people on the planet, whilethis nation is home to but 6% of the entire global population. The U.S. currently incarcerates a higher share of its population than any other country in the world. The U.S. incarceration rate—753 per 100,000 people in 2008—is approximately 240% higher than it was in 1980. Non-violent offenders make up over 60% of the prison and jail population. Non-violent drug offenders account for about 25% of those currently incarcerated.  Within these obscene numbers, more people of color are fettered by today’s broken criminal justice system, including more than 1 million incarcerated black men, than were enchained as slaves in the 1850’s. The reliable research of the Children’s Defense Fund reports that, if they cannot read at grade level at grade three, 1/3 black boys, 1/6 brown boys, 1/13 white boys are already in the pipeline to prison. Currently, private and public prisons are being constructed to encage them at the pipeline’s end. And yet, 50% of U.S. children cannot read or compute atgrade levels 4, 8, and 12. Grotesquely, 1/5 U. S. children exist in dreadful poverty, 32% of the children in Columbus, and the median net worth of U.S. black families fell 83% between 2004-2009. And yet, neither this nation nor state has made early childhood education a priority for needy children nor created reliable jobs that pay a living wage for their parents; jobs that would encourage struggling families to become viable. And yet, the U.S. has squandered $4 trillion on the flawed andfailed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is responsible for 58% of the entire world’smilitary spending, while a 50% reduction of the number of those incarcerated, all of whom could be non-violent offenders, would lower by $16.9 billion the money being wasted in the U.S. on the failed criminal justice system. Such prudent money management would make available the resources needed to help provide adequate health carefor all, establish a living wage for the working poor, and creatively train and employ ex-offenders and the able-to-work un/under-employed to repair the tattered infra-structures of America’s cities.

Recently, a gifted inmate at the Chillicothe prison,a former resident of my old inner-city neighborhood in Dayton, who will be released in 18 months, said, “I really want to make it this time. I want to be a good father and husband. I hate prison and dealing drugs. That is not who I am or what I want to do, but I’m afraid. Afraid there will be no job for me, when I get out, just as there was no job available before I drifted into the street life. Afraid I’ll fallback into the seductive old life. Afraid because I know I’m a statistic waiting to happen. Just anotherblack felon headed toward an early grave with a bullet in his head.”

If you doubt this searing testimony, drive through core-city Dayton or Columbus or Cincinnati and ask yourself, and our political and business leaders, where there is meaningful work for this young manand his home boys; viable jobsthat would lead to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “What We Got Here Is Failure to Connect” to the American Dream.

But, not just that. Also, “What We Got Here Is Failure to Connect” those trapped within the criminal justice system, and the pipeline that feeds it, to what works in building and sustaining redemptive human relationships.

Unlike the way media, the popular culture, and the criminal justice system portray inmates, those active in the Horizon Prison Initiative are not defined by ugly false stereotypes or past inappropriate behavior, but by the vast, demonstrated, and often untapped potential of their transformed lives. In the multifaith Horizon programs in three Ohio prisons,formerly broken human beings are moving toward wholeness as they live purposeful lives, while affirming themselves, their families, and community. It is no wonder that, surrounded with respect and love, while experiencing the redemptive power of I-Thou relationships, as theylive in healthy family units where they learn to address conflicts creatively, more than 1,000 Horizon graduates have posted a laudable recidivism rate of less than 10% across the 14 years of the program’s existence. Such laudable accomplishments,while also demonstrating stellar behaviorinside prison that has produced an enviable record of greatly reduced violence and disciplinary infractions in the three prisons where the men of Horizonlead by example.With the traumas that brought them to prison beingunearthed and addressed, largely through non-manipulative, non-abusive relationships with some 150volunteers and fellow inmates,miracles of vital human transformation have re-made the lives ofHorizon participants.

Never shall I forget the former leader of the racist Aryan Brotherhood in allOhio’s prisons and a formerly enraged Black Muslim standing together, as Horizon grads, telling the prison world they were no longer hated enemies, but black and whitebrothers , who have each other’s back, because each is a child of God and, therefore, sacred. Employing what many learned in theKairos Prison Ministry ;practicing what Henri Nouwein taught about transforming hostility into hospitality; and, emulating Wesleyan Class Meetings the lives of innumerable inmates, beloved children of God,are being qualitatively and quantifiably redeemedat little cost to the taxpayers of Ohio. And yet, after branding it “best practices”, in the prison system, the State of Ohio recentlycurtailed its minimal funding of Horizonfor fuzzy,quasi-political reasons. Nevertheless, Horizon continues because it can do no other. And yet, when the state’s shabby financial rug was pulled on these “best practices”, while at least$25K a year is spent to incarcerate an inmate, it is evident that “What We Got Here Is Failure to Connect” to what works and is cost-effective in building and sustaining redemptive human relationships that reform prisons, provide tangible hope and life-skills for inmates, and help to bond ex-offenders with their families. Why is Ohio’s criminal justice system not multiplying Horizon’simpact in additional prisons across the state instead of cutting its minimalfunding?“What We Got Here Is Failure to Connect” to a time-testedprogram that sets the crooked straight and is making some very rough places much more peaceful, effective,and harmonious. Ask the wardens Jason Bunting and Norm Robinson, and former wardens Chris Money and MaggieBeightler, if you doubt this testimony.

But it is not just that. Also, “What We Got Here Is Failure to Connect” with the Gospel, if we are Christians. Be we liberal or conservative, evangelicals or progressives, Democrats or Republicans, Tea Party advocates or Obama purists, Jesus providesno wiggle room when it comes toresponsibility for doing ministry in jails and prisons, with inmates and prisoners. Clearly, it is ours to do.

When Jesus was asked when they had visited him in prison, he replied, “…as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” There has been far too much smoke blown up the skirtsof Christians of all persuasions about “Ministry with the Poor.” It is time to say,“Enough smoke! Enough feeble processing and pious pontificating, enough strident debates and Left/Right wing donnybrooks.” Now is the time for those of all theological persuasions to meet Jesus anew in the faces and lives of inmates thrown onto the festering junk piles that are the prisons in Ohio. Expensive human garbage heaps, with bars and barbed wire, located at the dead end of Ohio’s failed criminal justice system,where Jesus is being crucified daily. We arecalled to provide the incarcerated with sight and sound, voice and visibility. If the church wants to do, rather than prattle about, “Ministry with the Poor”, let us confron tOhio’s criminal justice system where inmates with hopes and dreams are clamoring for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, longing for the multiplication ofredemptive human relationships, and yearning for opportunities to live whole some productive lives that do good, and notharm, while unashamedly embracing God and neighbor.

CONCLUSION—“What We Got Here Is Failure to Connect” to the American Dream, to what produces redeemed lives, and to the promises and demands of Jesus.  And yet, what we also have here is a pregnant opportunity,writhing in labor pains, yearning for anew birth that is possible with the help of midwives, like us,who will dare to“…do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.” Therefore, several concrete actions for your embrace and action.

  • Recruit volunteers to serve as Outside Brothers with the Horizon Prison Initiative.
  • Participate in taking Horizon to the Marysville Reformatory for Women.
  • Provide congregational support, hospitality, and welcome for Horizon ex-offenders and families.
  • Establish a Criminal Justice Task Force to study the books of leaders in the field of criminal justice, like Michelle Alexander and James Logan, engage your state officials, write Letters to the Editor and to your Ohio legislators, and testify at State of Ohio policy and budget hearings.
  • Visit one of the Horizon dorms/programs, ASAP, and make plans, now, to attend one of the Horizon graduations in June.
  •  Include Horizon in your charitable giving and the mission budget of your congregations, $1,600 supports one inmate per year.
  •  Include Horizon staff, volunteers,and inmate participants, by name, in your personal and congregational prayers of intercession.

Contact information for all of this can be obtained through the Horizon Prison Initiative at either 614-581-4940 or 614-302-5450.

We can “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly…”for “such a time as this.”


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