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Where Do We Go from Here: Reimagining our Broken Criminal Justice System By MegAnne Liebsch

Introduction

As a fresh Jesuit novice, Zach Presutti ministered to people incarcerated in a local jail. Years later, he still remembers spending Thanksgiving Day at the jail, praying with people who were held on low-level drug charges. The experience broke his heart.

“What is going on here? How can this be? How come they're there, and I'm not there? Why are these people here locked up on Thanksgiving Day for marijuana charges?” he asked himself. These questions propelled him to devote himself to prison ministry and criminal justice advocacy.

“It was the beginning of a really deep exploration of not only myself but the system, the country and my own inclusion in this,” Presutti says.

Presutti’s story is one strand in the web of mass incarceration, but his questions drive straight to the heart of the failings of the U.S. criminal justice system. How can this be? Why?

These questions are on the minds of many Americans following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. The events of this summer have torn open deep wounds that cut close to the lifeblood of our nation. Through the courageous organizing of many Black, Indigenous and other people of color, these flash points have moved the U.S. toward confronting and addressing systemic racism.

Fr. Tom Reese, SJ (center) protests at the White House following the murder of George Floyd.

The process is uncomfortable, but discomfort is a powerful motivator for change. Swaths of the country are shedding their comfort in the status quo and demanding change. Now, federal and state governments are considering a vast palette of legislative reforms to address systemic racism and inequity.

Amid this wave of political and social rebellion, we have an opportunity to imagine our society anew. While such a destination seems impossibly distant, Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit network offer us a road map to get there.

This three-part series will explore the criminal justice system through the lens of systemic racism and chronic poverty. In Part One, our partner Rhonda K. Oliver shares her personal experience of incarceration. Part Two examines the choices our society makes — to divest from communities and focus on punishing crime — and how those choices have spawned segregation, chronic poverty and mass incarceration. And Part Three provides a radical alternative — based in reconciliation and grace — through the story of Presutti’s organization, Thrive for Life Prison Ministry.

Part One: Examining the Personal Consequences of Mass Incarceration

Each year, mass incarceration tears through the lives of millions of Americans — disproportionately harming Black and Latino communities.

Mass incarceration is the descendant of slavery and Jim Crow, and the consequences of this system of control extend far beyond prison walls. High rates of incarceration in communities of color suppress economic opportunity. Often, excessive policing substitutes essential social services like job training and education.

The U.S. is home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Over 2 million people are in jail or prison this very moment.

For Rhonda K. Oliver, incarceration set off a chain of consequences. While in prison, she was separated from her nine-year-old daughter. After being released to “nowhere,” she struggled to find housing and afford food.

Rhonda K. Oliver

Out of this experience, Oliver founded her non-profit, Women Determined. The non-profit helps formerly incarcerated women regain total (physical, emotional, and financial) independence, providing them with housing and other resources. Along with partners like Jesuit Social Research Institute, Women Determined transforms communities through education, theatrical art and neighborhood revitalization.

Her story moves mass incarceration from the abstract to the personal. Oliver’s perspective as both a formerly incarcerated person and as an activist outlines a path toward transformational change in our criminal justice system. We are deeply grateful to Oliver for sharing her story.

'Released to Nowhere’: A Reflection on Mass Incarceration

By Rhonda K. Oliver

In the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women the day starts with a 5:30 a.m. count. I would get out of bed and stand outside the door to my assigned room while officers surveyed us. After the count was announced “clear,” I had the choice of going to breakfast, dressing for work or to getting back in the bed if I wasn’t working.

I had several jobs in prison, but at the time of my release I was working in the garment factory. Like most inmates, I was required to work from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Throughout the day there were several more counts. Wherever I was when officers called count, I had to prepare myself to be counted. “Prepare to cease moving in all areas. Count will commence in 10 minutes,” the loudspeakers announced. Whether in the shower or on the yard, I had to stop what I was doing and get back to my room for count. During count, everyone must stand outside of their rooms wearing their nametags. We couldn’t move until the guards allowed us.

If I didn’t have work, I could hang out on the yard—if it was open—or stay in the dormitory. There were church services and bible studies every day, so I attended church every evening. Before sunset, guards called lockdown, closing the yard. This was a typical day in prison.

I was faced with many challenges while in prison. I struggled to work on my case because a guard often denied my incoming legal material and refused to admit me into the law library. There were times I was thrown in lockdown for no reason. Guards lied on my disciplinary reports, punishing me at whim, simply because they could. Receiving proper medical care was near impossible. Some ladies were forced to convince the medical staff that they needed medical treatment—rather than automatically receiving treatment. I watched several women die because of this neglect.

Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate 5.1 times that of white Americans, according to the Sentencing Project. One out of every 3 Black boys will go to prison in his lifetime, as will 1 of every 6 Latino boys.

When I went to prison my daughter was 9 years and 11 months old. The hardest thing about my incarceration was leaving my child in a world without a mother all because of my foolish choices.

Even my release from prison was challenging, I was effectively “Released to Nowhere.” I needed housing more than anything. Eventually, I received help paying my rent and deposit. But this only lasted for a few months. It just was not enough for a person who is starting their life over with nothing. This is why the organization I founded, Women Determined, is needed.

I believe it was my faith journey that got me through prison and brought me where I am today. I started reading the Bible when I went to prison and more than anything, I wanted to do what it said. I was hungry for biblical knowledge, and I was adamant about being a follower of Christ by living my life to please him. After being incarcerated, my faith enabled me to get a job with the City of New Orleans, move into my own apartment seven months after my release, and start Women Determined. Now, I run a transitional house for formerly incarcerated women. I have also self-published a book, earned a degree in accounting, and continue to write plays that deal with social justice issues. I couldn’t do any of this without my faith in Jesus Christ.

I take full responsibility for the poor choices I made that got me tangled up in the justice system. But, the court did not take into account the complex reasons for my choices, the hardships and mitigating factors. There is so much that is unjust and unfair about the criminal justice system in this country. Too often, the system penalizes people instead of showing mercy.

Every year, “over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year,” the Prison Policy Initiative reports. Most of them are jailed pretrial because they are too poor to afford bail.

I presently use theatrical arts to shine the light on these injustices. Many people sit in prison because they were coerced to break the silence to which they have a right. They break their silence out of fear. Officers tell them they will be allowed to go home if they release a statement. Documentation proves this manipulation by law enforcement.

Habitual offender statutes overreach the criminal justice system even further. These unjust laws target people who have previous criminal records and allow courts to issue harsher sentences. The practice clearly subjects those sentenced under this statute to double jeopardy (a protection enshrined in the 5th amendment that prevents people from being tried twice for the same crime).

Right now, I am working with a woman who waived her right to remain silent. She was told she could go home if she signed a statement—but she is illiterate. She has been in prison for over 20 years because she signed a statement that she could not read.

Two actors participate in a Women Determined Theatre Production (Courtesy of Women Determined)

My play “Murder with No Intent” shines a light on the indignity of sentencing people to life without parole. I tell the story of Loris Houston, a 49-year-old woman serving a life sentence in Louisiana Correction Institute for Women. She was convicted of second-degree murder, despite evidence that she suffers from developmental delays. Houston may never leave prison—largely because she is Black, poor and uneducated.

Incarceration disrupts families and weakens communities. Criminal records act as a black mark, making people ineligible to vote or receive housing assistance and food vouchers. Fundamentally, the U.S. criminal justice system (and its repercussions) prioritize punishment over rehabilitation.

What Can We Do?

Part Two of this series will address current movements to transform the criminal justice system and achieve racial justice.