Camel's Hair and Locusts

Lady Justice, RoboCop, and Jesus on the Yellow Brick Road to the Future

In the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz, the wizard, played to flamboyant perfection by the incomparable Frank Morgan, decides that he will solve young Dorothy's dilemma (and consequently his own) by simply taking her back to Kansas in the hot air balloon that had brought him to Oz in the first place.  In his farewell discourse to the gathered citizens of the Emerald City, he states the purpose of this sudden departure as an "...unexplainable journey into the outer stratosphere. To confer, converse, and otherwise hob-nob with my brother wizards."

On February 19, some of us in Michigan who are engaged in Catholic ministry to the incarcerated had the opportunity to confer, converse and otherwise hob-nob with our brother (and sister) wizards at a meeting at the Michigan Catholic Conference in Lansing.  Ostensibly, this meeting was called by our good friend and Public Policy Advocate, Paul Stankewitz, for the purpose of sharing our observations and concerns with a committee from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which is currently gathering data and formulating recommendations for the Michigan Law Revision Commission, which will in turn use these findings to inform future legislation.  For an avowed cynic such as yours truly, it is always heartening to to see our system of government actually functioning in an intelligent and productive way, and even more refreshing when this functioning includes seeking the perspective of the Catholic community "down in the trenches" in the war against crime and injustice. Beyond this stated purpose for our gathering was the chance for those of us so engaged to share our experiences, frustrations and concerns with each other, and this provided an even greater highlight to the day.

I'm sure no one who does work with the incarcerated would describe him or herself as a "wizard" or what we do as "wizardry."  The information gathering being done by the Council for State Governments Justice Center on behalf of the Michigan Law Revision Commission was concerned with reentry issues, but the discussion also followed up the corrections food chain to the numerous difficulties encountered in the rehabilitation process, and beyond this to the criminal justice system itself.  It is a system that has made the difficult process of reentry into society even more difficult and, in doing so, has only complicated and exacerbated the problem of crime in the streets.  And there is certainly no wizardry involved here either.  In fact, the most telling term I heard used among my colleagues to describe this situation was "broken."

It should be no secret that the criminal justice system that seeks to correct the most basic ills of our society is broken.  The fact that we live in the nation with the greatest per capita prison population on earth is the most obvious proof of this, and the fact that the State of Michigan ranks near the bottom in virtually every statistical category concerning criminal justice should be cause for more than casual concern among the good citizens of our fair state.  To be sure, addressing the needs of this broken system is the purpose behind the Michigan Law Revision Commission, and providing the data and information necessary to inform policies that actually work is why the Council for State Governments Justice Center was brought into this discussion.  And so there is cause for hope that, since the Michigan Law Revision Commission is a bipartisan effort, we may finally rise above the idiotic finger pointing that goes on between the two parties and attack this issue at its roots.  The failure of our criminal justice system is not a political problem, it is systemic.  And the creation of this broken system has been a team effort led by both parties.  This broken system is only reflective of the broken people who comprise it, and fixing it will require rising above "politics as usual," and addressing the human needs of these broken people, who are merely represented as numbers in the data and statistics -- just as they are in the jails and prisons.

The great advantage inherent in working directly with those in jail or prison is that one gets to know them as living and breathing human beings, rather than as just numbers and statistics.  This quickly results in a change of perception from that of society in general, and the conditioning that has resulted from an entertainment influenced media that tends to paint all individuals involved in criminal activity with the same broad and evil brush.  A popular instance of this currently making the rounds in the theaters of America is the film RoboCop, which is disturbing at numerous levels in its futuristic portrayal of law enforcement and criminal justice in America, but perhaps never more so than when it portrays every individual criminal in the film as psychopathic and subhuman.  Elimination is the preferred option to apprehension, and rehabilitation is not an option ever presented or considered.  And what makes this truly disturbing is the truth that this near future is merely the natural outgrowth of our current national mindset, which is based on the erroneous idea that the way to solve the crime problem is to simply keep increasing the severity and intensity of the punishment until it is eliminated.  This hasn't worked and it won't.  What it results in is a prison system that is a series of warehouses filled with broken people, and an overloaded and overburdened corrections and rehabilitation apparatus that finds it increasingly impossible to fix them.  As this all becomes prohibitively expensive, perhaps the next logical step is just to eliminate the cost by eliminating the offenders right on the street.  That RoboCop takes a tack that is morally ambiguous concerning this is the most disturbing aspect of the picture.           

Let's put a human face on this for a moment by considering two young men I know who are currently incarcerated in the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Both are now in their mid 20's, and I have known both since I was their jail chaplain over five years ago.  One of these young men is black and the other white.  Let's call the young black man "Isaiah" and the young white man "Carl."  These are not their real names.  Both of these young men were convicted of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree, which in their cases involved sex with an underage girl.  Both girls were 15 at the time (the age of consent in Michigan is 16).  Both were sexually active and promiscuous at the time the offenses against them were committed, and both initiated the sex act that resulted in the criminal charges brought against the young men, both of whom were around 20 years old at the time.           

In Carl's case, the crime was committed with his sister in law.  Carl was married at the time to a woman several years older than he, and in an attempt to seek retribution for some offense she felt had been inflicted by her older sister, Carl's sister in law induced Carl to smoke marijuana with her and then seduced him into an act of oral sex.  She then claimed that he had forced her into the act, and he was arrested.  When the young sister in law realized the full ramifications of what she had accused Carl of, she tearfully recanted her earlier statement on the stand and admitted to the scenario as described above.  The court determined that Carl was still guilty of statutory rape, and he was convicted and sentenced accordingly to two to 15 years in prison.  He was ordered to complete sex offender programming while imprisoned and before being eligible for parole, and was credited with his time served in jail.  This meant that he would be eligible for parole after 18 months in prison.  I counseled Carl numerous times in one-to-one settings at his request.  His remorse over the events that had transpired was real and intense, and his hope at the time of his sentencing was to complete his time and programming quickly, and come home and rebuild his life and his marriage centered in Christ.  He and his wife have a son together, who was still an infant as all this transpired, and Carl very much wanted to heal his family in the life of the Church.

The reality turned out to be far different from what Carl had hoped for and anticipated.  As a good looking young man inexperienced in the realities of prison life, he was quickly preyed upon by sexual predators.  He was offered protection by the Nation of Islam in exchange for his services as an "enforcer."  Carl was not, and is not, a violent young man, and his first attempt at collecting a debt for the Nation of Islam resulted in both a severe beating to himself, a major ticket for instigating the fight, and a couple of months in segregation (solitary confinement, popularly referred to as "the hole").  Because he had confessed the truth about what had happened to him at his disciplinary hearing, the Nation of Islam had "hits" out on him when he was released from segregation, and he was quickly attacked and was sent back to the hole for his own protection until he could be "rode out" to what was hopefully a more neutral facility.  This cycle of violence followed him through a couple more transfers, and the skirmishes that he encountered along the way didn't make for a very attractive prison record.  To date, he has been turned down for parole twice, and if he is fortunate enough to be released his next time around, what started out as 18 months in prison will have turned into a five year ordeal.  During this time, his wife has divorced him, and her subsequent lifestyle has resulted in his son going into foster care.  The rest of his family has deserted him, and he will reenter the world with no one and nothing but the hope that he can somehow build a new life from scratch.  And from a parole to community placement housing, this is a long, hard climb indeed.

Compared to Isaiah's experience in prison, Carl's life has been a gay, mad whirl. 

Isaiah had what he maintains to this day was consensual sex with his white fianc√©'s younger cousin, and when the girl's mother discovered this, she insisted that charges be filed against him.  Isaiah, in the days when I first knew him in jail, was a sensitive and quietly intelligent young man, and a very talented artist.  His dream was to be a comic book illustrator, and he had the skills to do it.  He had been involved marginally in gang activity and had a juvenile record, but nothing serious and nothing as an adult.  He hadn't been in any trouble for several years, and after a very shaky childhood in which his father had deserted his family, and his mother had abandoned him to one foster home after another, it looked like he was going to overcome all of this to make a successful life for himself.  He and his girlfriend had a son together, and Isaiah loved this child and was bent on dedicating his life to him by being the father to his son that he had never had.  They had plans to be married.  In my counseling sessions with him, he insisted that he wanted to put this stupid act behind him and make it up to everybody he had hurt.  Isaiah was a strong Christian in those days, and every time I visited him, we would end our talk by holding hands through the bars, and he would pray for God's forgiveness and guidance with tears running down his cheeks and staining the front of his orange jumpsuit.

Though her own family members have told me that the girl in Isaiah's case fabricated the true nature of the encounter she had with him, this was never admitted officially and Isaiah was convicted and sentenced to eight to 15 years in prison.  Understandably, this is a much more severe sentence than what Carl received for the same charge. Was the black on white nature of the crime a factor in the result Isaiah experienced?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  However, when we hear that justice is blind, we must remember that the reality is that Lady Justice often picks her blindfold up to check the racial makeup of the defendant, and then proceeds to throw the book at black and minority individuals.  Young white men often get probation, maybe two or three times, and young black or Hispanic men go to prison first time out of the box.  I know two men serving time for homicide in the second degree and the white man got eight years minimum, whereas the black man got 20.  All other circumstances were the same.  I find it rather disingenuous when northern white folks look down their noses at the racism of the deep south as if it can't happen here in the north.  It can and it does, and it ought to be all the more disturbing that it happens in the courts.  A black friend of mine in Florida who is a social worker describes the situation this way: "In the north, they stab you in the back.  In the south, you at least see the knife coming."

Isaiah and I exchanged a few letters when he went off from jail to prison, and when he quit writing to me, we lost contact for a year or better.  One day, I got a letter from another man I had known at the jail, and in it he told me that Isaiah had recently arrived at the facility he was at, and was having a very tough time of it.  He suggested that I write to him, and so I did.  Isaiah and I began exchanging letters regularly, and the Isaiah I got to know at this point in time was a far different person from the young man who used to cry to God to help him straighten out his life and move on from all of this.  This Isaiah was angry and callous and hurting at a very deep level. 

Isaiah started his prison time out by hooking up with some young men he had known as a teenager who ran with the East Side Gang in Saginaw, and his life has been in a downward spiral ever since.  He began "running store" which means just that -- selling merchandise and various services to other inmates.  As the enforcer for his own business interests and those of others, he made enemies, got into fights and was slashed and stabbed.  He slashed and stabbed back.  As a man convicted of criminal sexual conduct, he was called "baby raper" and was harassed and beaten by other inmates. The gentle Isaiah I had known in jail had turned into a bitter, violent and spiteful young man in prison.  He was twice convicted for weapons possession, and this has added another 3 to 10 years to his sentencing. 

When repeated trips to the hole didn't break him of his violent ways, Isaiah was put in maximum security at the Marquette Branch Prison, which is the deepest pit in the Michigan prison system.  He is currently in another maximum security facility, where he has to be shackled and escorted every time he leaves his cell.  On the outside, his girlfriend has taken up with gangsters -- or he thinks she has.  And those with whom he is incarcerated threaten his son's safety and life, and this torments Isaiah and drives him ever deeper into madness and despair.  His family has retreated from him because he lashes out in anger at everyone.  Like Carl, I am the last person he has contact with in the outside world, and I endure his letters full of paranoid rantings and verbal abuse because, as I tell him, I believe somewhere deep down inside that old Isaiah is still there.  He is angry at God and takes this anger out on me by denouncing me as the false teacher of a false religion that couldn't save him, and I don't give up on him because I really do believe that the real Isaiah is in there somewhere and that God does love him and somehow will deliver him from all of this.  Someday.  Someway.  Isaiah believes he has all of the answers, but all of the answers he has are wrong.  He is in rebellion against everyone and everything, but especially against the authority of the prison system, and this means, in turn, those within it who are sincerely trying to help him find his way home.

The idea behind the character of the Wizard of Oz was that, as wizard, he was the self proclaimed man with all the answers.  He was, of course, a charlatan -- a "humbug."  And while he had contrived answers to the largely imagined dilemmas of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, he had no "magic" capable of returning the lost Dorothy back home to Kansas.  In the absence of such magic, he turned instead to science in the form of his old hot air balloon, and when Toto took out after a cat, this science subsequently took flight and left Dorothy behind.  The moral to the story was supplied by Good Witch Glinda in the lesson of the ruby slippers: the journey home from the strange land of Oz couldn't be accomplished through magic or science but was, after all, a spiritual journey enlightened by the encounters and adventures found along the Yellow Brick Road.  And the lesson was brought to fruition with the realization that the way back home is not to be found outwardly in the strange world of Oz, but inwardly with the awakening of the true and higher nature of the self.  In the Wizard of Oz it is at this moment of Dorothy's awakening self awareness that Glinda is able to point to the ruby slippers as the true way back home.  In prison ministry, it is at this moment of awakening self awareness that we point to the Cross as serving this same purpose.  And this approach works because, unlike the Wizard of Oz, Jesus Christ is the man with all the answers.

Because this is so, we must never give up on fixing our broken system of justice, and we must never entertain the idea that eliminating the broken people within it is any kind of viable or just solution.  This is the reasoning that resulted in a Roman justice that led Jesus to the Cross.  He didn't transform this false justice of men into the eternal salvation of God so that we might submit others to it, but rather so we might know to deliver them from it.  This is a justice that is truly restorative, and it is the message the Michigan Catholic Conference is trying to convey to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Michigan Law Revision Commission, and, in turn, to our legislators in Lansing.  As Catholic Christians and Americans, we should pray that this is also accomplished on the national stage before it is too late and we descend irretrievably into the robotic and godless future Hollywood has envisioned for us in RoboCop.  It is time we all wake up to the same truth that Dorothy realized: there's no place like home.  And helping those who are the most lost find their way is how we get there ourselves.

Phil Ropp

Phil is the owner of the news portal Radio New Jerusalem.