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.