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What happened to us?

We asked members of our staff to share what moves them to do justice work. This month Rev. Sala Nolan Gonzales, Minister for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, reflects on the changes to our U.S. prison system and on the impact that those people who have been pushed to the margins of our society -- people who are in prison, who live under bridges, who suffer from fear and illness – have had on her life.

What happened to us?

I am an African American.  I grew up in the South Bronx.  I know what it is to watch my friends go off to war, and come home, and go off to jail.  I watched immigrants – one of them my mother – and smelled their cooking in the project hallways.  I knew the mentally ill in my neighborhood, some of whom took very good care of me.  Life was good, life was harsh, life was full, life was loving.  In New York, you are always surrounded by vibrant, shimmering life. 

Something has gone terribly wrong since the days of my childhood. 

When I came to the national UCC setting in 2000, there were 1.9 million people in U.S. prisons.   By 2008, there were 2.35 million.  You must know by now that our country imprisons more of its populace than any other country on earth, that one-fourth of the world’s prisoners are held in U.S. prisons, that our incarceration rates far outstrip those of Rwanda. 

What I know is that these people are my neighbors, the immigrants and mentally ill people I grew up with, the veterans returned from the war, the people of color whose skin I wear. 

Something happened to us.  In 1971, Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs.  In 1976 our abandoned death penalty was reinstituted.  Private prisons were established by corporations in 1983 to make money from incarceration.  1984 brought three-strikes laws and mandatory minimums and felonization of low-level drug crimes.  In the midst of it all, throughout the 1980s, our nation closed its mental institutions and cut funding for community mental health. 

The people living in U.S. prisons could fill a small nation.  We build high-tech prisons for solitary confinement– a practice internationally recognized as torture.  And prisons have become our nation’s single largest repository for people with schizophrenia, depression, and all manner of mental disorders. 

What happened to us? 

When I came the national setting to work on issues of criminal justice, my first case was a death penalty case.  It was Philip Workman, who robbed a store in Tennessee where a police officer was killed by friendly fire.  Philip lived on death row for a long time.  One night he was strapped to the execution gurney, and then received a reprieve.  A second time, he was strapped to the gurney.  A third.  The fourth time, he was executed.  Even among those who support execution, is there anyone on earth who believes this man was not tortured until he died? 

Sometimes I teach a class in a women’s prison.  I do it to maintain my sense of balance and to remember my values.  I do it because the greatest kindnesses I have received in life have been from people who are in prison, who live under bridges, who suffer from fear and illness.  Somehow, a loving presence touches and heals people.  More often than not, I am the one healed.      

This work is our work.  There are many laborers who are steadfast in their care for others.  Some attend to indigenous prisoners in Oklahoma and Arizona and Hawaii who have been cut off from their culture, who have no opportunity to practice their holy days.  When they have been able to celebrate together, everyone has been restored. 

Once I took a group of  the UCC’s Council for Racial and Ethnic Ministries (COREM) members to a death row in Tennessee, where they met men with whom they continue relationships today.  One of those men was Ndume, convicted in 1984 of a Tennessee murder even though he was in another state at the time.  His sentence was recently commuted to life without parole.  He taught himself to paint, and gave me a painting I use often to illustrate justice work.  It helps us to remember him.  Now his life in prison is being reconsidered.  Perhaps one day he will be free. 

Suffering belongs to all of us.  When one of us labors, all of us labor.  To be joined in suffering is the essence of compassion.  To suffer.  With. 

May our suffering bring us compassion, and may our compassion bring us peace. 

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