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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Unholy Profits: Why the UMC Must Divest from Private Prisons

"I will not revoke the punishment because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals - they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth." (Amos 2:6-7)
In his book, "The Expanding Prison," David Cayley writes, "The Bible...is a virtual catalog of crimes" and thus, the story of God's mission to his world is to heal those victimized by crime, and to restore those responsible into right relationship with those they have hurt. Sadly, the United Methodist Church currently is not joining in God's mission of restoration, but is, instead, profiting from the mass incarceration of people, particularly people of color.

The United Methodist Church owns stock in two private prisons companies, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. Private prisons is one of the fastest growing industries in the country today. They represent fast rising stocks so the investment is a smart one if your sole basis for making investment decisions is economic benefit. As the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) reports, these two companies combined for a 2.9 billion dollar profit in 2010. But they were not the only ones to profit - their stockholders did as well. And among those who own stock in CCA and GEO Group is the United Methodist Church, which has earned roughly $250,000. 250 grand will certainly buy a boat load of stained glass windows and youth trips to Six Flags.

Now, CCA and GEO Group are assuredly not any different from other companies making such huge profits. They are determined to make even more money from incarcerating people through passing legislation that continues to incarcerate mass numbers of people in the U.S. prison system. A prison system that has now ballooned to over 2.3 million people. This means paid lobbyists. JPI reports that both CCA and GEO Group and other private prison companies have lobbied for and even in some cases, actually helped draft such legislation called "three strikes and you're out" and "truth in sentencing." Both of these policies have been part of the "tough on crime" approach to criminal justice that has become so politically popular. Such policies, along with the War on Drugs, are the reasons why the prison population has exploded.

I will discuss in future posts other reasons for divestment, but the reason why their lobbying work of state and federal legislatures is so important is that once you "win" a contract to house inmates, you then must advocate for policies which will help you fill up that prison. This means mass incarceration. The effect is that though the United States represents only 5% of the world's population, we house 25% of the world's incarcerated population.

The intimacy between lobbying and horrendous legislation is seen in the state of Arizona where Governor Brewer's closest aids were former lobbyists with CCA as she signed SB 1070 into law, which has had devastating impacts on immigrant families and their communities. So, though CCA has spent $900,000 each year on federal legislation since 2003, their return (combining with GEO Group in 2011 for a 2.9 billion profit) is quite worth it.

Another example is in Florida, where Governor Scott has pushed hard for privatization in many areas of the administration of social services. In just the first three months of 2011, GEO Group spent between $120,000 and $200,000 on lobbying efforts. The prize for their "hard work?" The Florida state legislature voted to privatize each one of it's prisons in South Florida - about one-fifth the total size of the state's prison population.

The last example comes from National Public Radio who tells the story of the largest juvenile detention facility in the country built in Walnut Grove, Mississippi by GEO Group. It was so big that they had a hard time filling it up with "clients." So, because they were losing money, their lobbyists advocated the Mississippi state legislature for the top age of youths being housed in this detention facility to be raised from 18 to 22. Housing children aged 13 (the age of my oldest son, Eli) with men 22 years old has had devastating impacts on the children, though it has been quite profitable for GEO Group, raking in more than 3.4 million dollars since the age was raised.

But raising the age has resulted in physical and sexual assaults against the younger and more vulnerable inmates. Further, in the lust for greater profits, even while the population at Walnut Grove increased, the number of guards were decreased to a ratio of 1 for every 60 inmates. If the youth weren't damaged before they arrived at Walnut Grove, they certainly will be once they leave. Thankfully, Walnut Grove is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, but it has not yet been shut down. And GEO Group profits from this - as does the United Methodist Church.

Growing profits in the private prison industry have made the market the determiner for effective criminal justice policy. Healing for victims of crime, and appropriate accountability and restoration for the accused are no longer parts of any equation in creating criminal justice policy. For corporations determined to increase their profits, concepts like healing, accountability, and restoration are fantasies. They are irrelevant church words, since the church is not having any transformative effect on this business. What is being transformed however, is the church through it's unholy investment in such an industry. For when the market drives policies; when more people in prison means more money; when people are so disposable and warehoused, it is the market that determines our morality and not the other way around. Having the Church profit from such sin is antithetical to the very essence of the counter-cultural gospel which Jesus incarnated in his life and ministry. And it is what he calls us to incarnate in our lives as well.

What we as United Methodists have to ask ourselves, is do we want to profit from such an industry? Do we want to make money from the abuse of children? Do we want to make money from incarcerating people for incredibly long periods of time and under often-times horrendous conditions? As followers of Jesus we should be advocating for a criminal justice system that brings healing to the victims of crime, and appropriate accountability and restoration to those accused. It is clear that this is not consistent with the aims or practices of such corporations as CCA and GEO Group. Therefore, we have no reason to delay one single minute longer. We should divest now and take that $250,000 we have made and give it to ministries aiding those who are leaving prison.

If you agree and are as outraged as I am about this United Methodist investment, then I encourage you to sign the petition that calls for immediate divestment. I also encourage you to share this with as many people - as many United Methodists especially - as you can. For the sake of righteousness and justice, we much immediately divest now or risk losing who we are and who and what we are called to be and do. Make your voice heard!!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lessons for Liberals from Braveheart? Yes, Braveheart

When the film Braveheart first came out in the mid-90s, I thought it was an excellent film. Of course, this was before Mel Gibson went on his drunken, woman-beating, anti-Semitic, racist tirades. This was also before the film became the favorite of hard right evangelical writers, like John Eldredge. In his book, Wild at Heart, Eldredge adopted the film as the paradigm for manhood in the midst of what he thought was an emasculating society because the film’s protagonist, William Wallace, fought violently to avenge his murdered wife and was uncompromising with noble elites.


When the film came out, Marti and I were in seminary and happened to attend several churches where, coincidentally, the pastor made reference to the film; one of whom actually bragged that he was given a sword like William Wallace’s by his wife. Although Eldredge and the pastors who modeled their manhood after the film’s depiction of Wallace, neither Eldredge, nor any of the pastors literally followed Wallace into battle and actually served in the armed forces. Their manhood, I presume, is meant to be figurative.


But in regards to the film, I remained a silent fan of it, but I hated to mention it to anyone I knew because I quite frankly did not want to be thought of in the same light as Eldredge, or the other war-loving-sword-yielding-wild-at-heart-manly-man pastors.


But I saw this film again recently and I have decided that liberals can enjoy this film as well. Here are just a couple of themes from Braveheart I think a liberal could really dig:



  • William Wallace’s uncompromising attitude towards the nobles of his day in achieving freedom for Scotland made me think of the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. With President Obama and Democratic leadership seemingly ready to compromise even before the legislative battles begin (just as the nobles in the film do), we need more William Wallace’s reminding us that compromise that allows the smallest and richest minority to hold on to their wealth at the expense of the poor and vulnerable is obscene and should not be tolerated. As Wallace refused to negotiate in order to gain lands and titles – power – so too I pray the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the thousands of other protesters will, like Wallace, hold on to their vision of fairness and justice for the 99% until justice and freedom is achieved. We know from the past that allowing the nobles (Democratic leadership) to make endless deals will maintain the current economic and political order. Those marginalized will remain marginalized. So, I am rooting for the real Bravehearts – the protesters.



  • The Edward Longshanks character is someone who reflects the worst in our current society. Longshanks’ son is gay and because of his own deep insecurity and homophobia he, in one scene, kills his son’s lover. Whether it is accepting his son’s sexual orientation or allowing the Scottish movement for independence, Longshanks will go to any lengths to stomp out any movement for freedom – any movement which does not submit to his oppressive rule. Longshanks’ Kingship is an abuse of power and he even uses torture to enforce capitulation by his subjects. But obedience cannot be forced. Ironically, it is Longshanks’ brutality which shows the inevitable triumph of freedom movements and the failure of British authority. The use of brutality such as torture is a sure sign that that society is doomed to failure for they know their rule is not welcomed as one which can uphold fairness and reason. Rigid and brutal enforcement of law or doctrine actually shows the weakness of that law or doctrine.

Though thoroughly historically inaccurate, in the end, Braveheart is a well-made film and one from which liberals – heck, all of us – can glean lessons for justice and morality in our world. I don’t want Wallace’s sword and I certainly do not want to follow him into battle – we have had enough of that. But I do pray we have more Bravehearts who will risk what they have for those who have nothing – that we will all challenge the current social, political and economic order until justice and freedom for all people are made real. I’ll take that instead of a sword any day.

Friday, October 14, 2011

I Don't Cry for You Anita

Just a few days ago Anita Perry, wife of Texas Governor and Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry, was speaking at a luncheon in South Carolina and began to cry as she told her audience it had been a tough month for her husband's campaign. She complained that her husband had been brutalized by the insults of his political rivals. Perry, who began his campaign just over a month ago, came in as the front runner and has seen his poll numbers sink as his performance in the debates has been sufficiently underwhelming.

But I have been struck by the talk now about whether she has become a sympathetic figure. I certainly hope not.

Let's consider her husband's governorship. During his time as Governor there have been 234 people murdered by the state of Texas and, according to Amnesty International, this accounts for 40% of all US executions carried out since Perry assumed the Governorship in February of 2000.

Further, 4 of those executed were juveniles when they committed the offense (and could have been more, though this was thankfully put to an end by the Supreme Court in 2005). And 9 of the 234 were suffering from mental illness.

And we can never forget that at least one - Cameron Todd Willingham - was most likely innocent. But Perry intentionally sidetracked the investigation into Willingham's innocence, ensuring his execution would go on as scheduled.

Does Anita Perry want us to cry for her and her husband who has been "brutalized" because he is a bad debater? Sorry Anita, I have no tears for you. My tears are washed up from crying for the Cameron Todd Willingham's, and the other possibly innocent people your husband has helped to kill.

Is Anita Perry a sympathetic figure? I am afraid not. My sympathy is all used up for the 234 families whose loved ones were put to death, and for the 234 families of those who were killed and who were told by Governor Perry and the state of Texas that the only healing for them is through revenge and retribution.

In Luke 19:41, as Jesus triumphally enters Jerusalem, he stops as he sees Jerusalem fir the first time and he weeps. He weeps because of his impending crucifixion, and he weeps as the prophets wept, because they did not recognize when God was speaking to them.

I am sure Jesus is weeping now because his followers still do not recognize the message of the prophets; do not recognize the message God is bringing. I am sure Jesus weeps when he sees the obsession of the state of Texas, with their Christian Governor, with the death penalty. I am sure that Jesus weeps when our leaders weep for themselves and refuse to see their own hand in the injustices committed against others.

Jesus wept then and he weeps now at so much injustice in our world. But I seriously doubt he weeps for you Anita or your husband. Maybe Rick just needs to learn to debate better. Maybe you need to realize what being "brutalized" really means such as those murdered by the state of Texas, and not just politically insulted by talking heads. And maybe he should take his faith more serious and find better ways to hold those who commit crimes accountable rather than killing them.

I do not cry for you Anita. There are too many others to cry for.