Updated: Aug 3
“Remember the prisoners as though in prison with them.” (Hebrews 13:3)
Hebrews 13:3 has become my life. I’m sucking down books and articles about prisoners and the justice process that put them in prison. The more I learn, the more I realize that my country is filled with systematic vindictiveness and cruelty. I feel shame and anger and grief. God warned me in advance: Psalm 126:9, those who sow with tears shall reap with joyful shouting (NASB). Grief is Part One of my call to advocacy for criminal justice reform.
Here’s a prisoner I grieve for, from an article by Abby Haglage.
Fate Winslow of Shreveport, Louisiana, age 55, has committed non-violent robbery and drug crimes. Five years ago, homeless and hungry, he sold a bag of marijuana to an undercover cop and got $5. He wasn’t a success as a “career criminal” – a label the prosecutor put on him. But, a three strikes and you’re out law, mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and a policy of 10 out of 12 jurors is unanimous enough worked together to give Winslow a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole (LWOP).
I hate these laws. They were passed during three decades of “get tough on crime” legislation that has led to massive incarceration in the U.S. What’s their appeal? Haglage interviewed Winslow’s prosecutor, Jason T. Brown, who calls this “pro-active law enforcement”:
It’s a system, [Brown] says, that revolves around using lesser crimes to lock up people he suspects to be guilty of other, more violent ones. “I guess kind of the way the U.S. used tax evasion,” he says (most famously, to seal the fate of notorious mob boss Al Capone).
What happened to innocent until proven guilty?
Winslow’s prison warden doesn’t like Winslow’s sentence. Per Haglage,
Angola Prison Warden Burl Cain says, “There’s an answer to this without being so extreme. But we’re still-living-20-years-ago extreme. Throw the human away. He’s worthless. Boom: up the river… And yet, he didn’t even kill anybody. He didn’t do anything, he just had an addiction he couldn’t control and he was trying to support it robbing. That’s terrible to rob people-I’ve been robbed, I hate it. I want something done to him. But not all his life. That’s extreme. That’s cruel and unusual punishment to me.”
All this justice reading mixes it up with my daily lectionary Bible reading:
O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, nor chasten me in Your wrath. Be gracious to me, O Lord, for my bones are dismayed… Every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears. My eye has wasted away with grief; It has become old because of all my adversaries. (Psalm 6:1, 6-7 NASB)
I can feel Fate Winslow, dissolving his very bed with tears, confessing his sins and wishing relief from his powerful adversaries.
Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?” or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:8b-9 NASB)
I feel this for Fate Winslow, although in my own skin, I’m on the other end of the spectrum – at risk of being full and denying the Lord.
I’m not alone in my call. My wonderful husband, Kent, shares my grief and anger as a like-minded loving husband uniquely can. My twitter feed shows a rising tide of awareness of injustice on the right and the left. I’m working with a local coalition for parole. My pastor and others at Creekside listen to my tales and pray for me.
But I don’t have a Jesus team – fellow advocates, a prayer team, readers, researchers, letter writers, a writing circle or some kind of mini-body for justice. I could say that I will fail without a team. God simply says, “Team is the way.” So, perhaps some of you are my team and I am part of yours in justice advocacy. Are you one God’s calling?
Jani can be reached via email here.