GUEST BLOG by Jayce Hafner, Domestic Policy Analyst, Episcopal Public Policy Network
"He took him outside and said, 'Look up at the sky and count the stars-if indeed you can count them.'" -Genesis 15:5
A few years ago, I set out to better understand the U.S. prison system. Several hours of online research yielded a myriad of opinion articles, figures, and reports reciting data points on incarceration in the United States. I learned that the U.S. prison population has increased by over 500% in the past 40 years, even though violent and property crime rates have fallen dramatically since the 1990's. I read the often-quoted fact that the U.S. composes less than 5% of the world's population but imprison nearly 25% of the world's prison population. I absorbed the statistic that every black man born in 2001 has a one-in-three chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime.
Loaded with this information, I felt both incensed at the injustice of our prison system, and simultaneously disconnected from the problem at hand. I was not a lawyer or an elected official. I hadn't even been inside a prison before. What role could I play in dismantling the prison industrial behemoth? Like many of us, I wondered about the power and relevancy of my role in public life. How can we, as ordinary citizens, begin to address enormous problems like prison growth and racial discrimination?
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by our digital feeds, let's channel this information into local awareness and relationship. We can start this journey at home by learning the lay of our land. How many prisons or jails exist within our congressional districts? Where exactly are they located? Do our districts house any prison ministries? If so, how can we become involved? Forging relationships with prison inmates and returning citizens offers the chance to learn from people living the realities of the U.S. prison system. Equipped with knowledge of how the prison system affects our local economy, environment, and community, we can call our elected officials and urge them to pass meaningful criminal justice reform legislation (for an overview of Episcopal criminal justice priorities in the last Congress, please see our fact sheet).
This empowering model of local action supplementing and informing our advocacy efforts can be replicated across issue-areas from immigration to homelessness. And, even if we don't have time to regularly engage affected populations, we can still make time to look up from our computers and smart phone screens, to see the world as it is, and to meaningfully connect with those around us. True awareness requires more than facts and figures -it calls for attention, intention, and relationship. This Holy Week, how will you look up?
internet has the power to make us both more aware and more overwhelmed. We are inundated with information, rapidly consuming anecdotes, facts, and images in just a few moments' time. While processing the data on our screens, we often miss real life--and real human need--existing just in front of us.