“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrouge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentlemen…
“Oh! I was afraid from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them from their useful course,” said Scrouge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
–A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843
For the last century and a half Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrouge has been an iconic figure as Christmastime comes around. When we meet this utterly despicable character he is exploiting his workers, mocking his nephew for his hope and kindness and, yes, turning away the gentlemen who had come by to solicit donations on behalf of the poor, the needy and those in prison.
It took the visitation of three ghosts to turn Scrouge’s heart back toward the poor, the vulnerable and those languishing in prison. Fast-forward to today and its uncertain Dickens himself could have imagined the state of prisons in America. By now it is well-documented that the US has double the prison population of the second largest nation, China. For perspective, China has over a billion more people than the US.
Broadly speaking there are two solutions to the problem of prison overpopulation. The first would be a serious discussion regarding the unjust, unconscionable and ultimately ineffectual nature of locking men and women who lack the resources for everything from bail to a legal team (after all, someone with adequate means rarely finds themselves in prison, no matter the crime) away. For example, across the country restorative justice programs are increasing public safety and reducing prison populations.
The second strategy, proposed by Governor Kay Ivey, is to double down on our investment and build three new mega prisons in our state. The plans, which have been lacking in transparency, include bringing private prison company CoreCivic in to manage the operations. CoreCivic has been profiteering off human bodies across this nation for decades in ways that would make Scrouge himself blush.
CoreCivic’s very business model is encapsulated in Scrouge’s quote. This is a business that has monetized the “useful course” of locking people away from society. Time and again CoreCivic has faced civil rights lawsuits from underpaying and understaffing their prisons to maximize profits to forcing detainees to work for less than a dollar per day and other abuses. In short, CoreCivic has already proven that they do not share the common conviction in the dignity of human beings that Alabamians hold dear.
As a minister of the gospel, of course, Dickens’ work is not the final measure of my moral compass. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus. In his first public appearance, according to Luke’s account, this was Jesus’ chosen message quoting from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Can a people living in the “year of the Lord’s favor,” invest in long-term projects to lock people away? Can a people celebrating the coming of Jesus to live among us do anything but protest when our money is being used to partner with amoral companies like CoreCivic to hold our brothers and sisters in chains for the next 30, 40 or 50 years?
Jesus set down the scroll and let his hearers know, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled.”
Now it’s our move. Do we double down on our grotesque, dickensian prison system, or do we invest those dollars in programs that proclaim freedom for prisoners and set the oppressed free? Certainly it will take imagination to rethink and reorganize the legal system.
But for now we have a simple task, and it’s to join with human rights groups, environmental groups and religious groups to say no to the new prison expansion in our state.
For more information, check out a few interviews on abolition, new prison construction in Alabama and a conversation with Swift Justice, an organizer inside of Alabama prisons: