The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The latest chapter in the unfolding scandal of the American criminal justice system

Sabrina Smith and Lori Gipe head to the visitors area to talk about what it's like to spend Christmas in prison at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Cleveland has written the latest chapter in the unfolding scandal of the American criminal-justice system.

A report by the U.S. Marshals Service details a series of failures and abuses in Cleveland’s jails: Overcrowding. Frequent lockdowns to make up for understaffing. Food denied as punishment. Pregnant inmates sleeping on the floor. Mice-infested food storage. Young offenders thrown into the adult prison population. Inmates with mental illness denied treatment and placed in isolation.

A merger of Cleveland’s city and county systems was sold as a cost-saving measure. It resulted in a penal system in which there were 55 attempted suicides in one year. After the seventh inmate death from suicide or drug overdose, the reorganization was put on hold. The Marshals Service report found “insufficient and unclear answers” about recent inmate deaths. “I’m not saying it should be a hotel or a party,” former inmate Cecil Fluker told the county council, “but damn, can we come out alive?”

With no other group dependent on government care, does the discourse begin, “Well, who cares?” And there is no doubt that among the more than 2 million incarcerated Americans are some vicious and violent characters who deserve to be right where they are.

But there are several good reasons to care what happens in U.S. jails and prisons. First, this is a social stress test of sorts, measuring our commitment to human dignity. Do we believe that every life has value? Or do we judge some men and women as less than human and beneath our concern?

I was instructed in these matters by the late Charles Colson when I worked for him in the late 1980s. Colson had been a particularly ruthless and devious special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon. As a result of the Watergate scandal, Colson became prisoner 23226. While incarcerated, he discovered an extraordinary talent for relating to inmates across boundaries of class and race. And he accepted a Christian calling to speak to and for them, eventually visiting 800 prisons in 40 countries. Over time, this prison preacher became one of the most important social reformers of the 20th century, advocating humane treatment of prisoners and alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

I watched Colson demonstrate the most radical and challenging teaching of Christian faith: a belief in absolute equality before God. He treated murderers and rapists as his equals in the need for grace and his equals in their capacity to receive grace. And I watched people guilty of terrible crimes become models of moral maturity. If no one, in the end, is beyond God’s help, then no one should be beyond our concern.

But even if you find all of this to be pious rubbish, there is another reason to care about prison conditions: Because most prisoners — numbering more than 700,000 each year — will come back to communities. And how we behave toward them during their imprisonment matters greatly in determining their level of bitterness and criminality upon reentry. An inmate treated like a caged animal is expected to walk through a gate and become a productive citizen. It is insanity.

A final reason to be concerned about conditions behind prison walls is because there are more lives and futures at stake than that of any one prisoner. There are about 2.7 million children with an incarcerated mother or father. The children of prisoners are at high risk of future incarceration themselves. Writing off prisoners as worthless and hopeless has the effect of writing off many of their sons and daughters as well. It is moral malpractice with generational consequences.

There are proper political responses to America’s criminal-justice crisis: support for prison reform, for sentencing reform, for a general end to reliance on routine, mass incarceration. But there are also personal steps that can be taken. The prison outreach ministry Colson founded, Prison Fellowship, organizes an effort each Christmas called Angel Tree. It allows people to donate Christmas presents that are given on behalf of prisoners to their children, marked “With love from Mom” or “With love from Dad.” It is often a chance for inmates to reconnect with their families. And it is often the highlight of a child’s Christmas, a sign they are still loved.

The most effective social activism matches political vision and personal concern. Those seeking a more just society should also care about the quality of Christmas morning for an inmate’s child.

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Read more:

Radley Balko: The state of criminal-justice reform

The Post’s View: A criminal-justice bill has support from both parties. Mitch McConnell shouldn’t delay it.

Michael Gerson: We need a revival of humanism

Eugene Robinson: In prison reform, a little of something is better than a lot of nothing

Radley Balko: Let’s stop pretending that Trump cares about criminal-justice reform