Today Beverly held one of her weekly classes. As she spoke, her assistant wrote several Biblical names on a white board.
Paul = persecutor, murderer
Joseph = adulterer, poor father
Judas = betrayer, thief; and so on.
Beverly then said, "These are all people who followed Jesus. Who do you have the most in common with?"
From the moment I met her, I recognized Beverly as a woman of deep inner peace. She has something inside that I want to learn for myself. Especially in this line of work - assisting former offenders and people facing serious life obstacles - you need an inner peace to return to at night, or you will go crazy. Her message to her program participants is consistent - it doesn't matter who you were; it matters where you are going. Change is possible, but it first must happen from within.
Her question - Which sinner do you have the most in common with? - struck a chord with me because I think about the stigma of ex-prisoners and the source of that stigma. General society marginalizes ex-offenders (it is currently legal to discriminate against people who have been in prison on any platform - housing, employment, government assistance, etc.) on the premise of, "Hey, I'VE never been to prison, so that makes me inherently better than those who have." The problem with that belief is that our justice system is not currently operating justly. Further, we cannot even say law is always tied to morality or ethics. The same unlawful action in two similar contexts may be treated completely differently based on who the perpetrator is: We make exceptions for war, for profit, for land acquisition and Manifest Destiny, for someone who affords a good lawyer, or for "affluenza". Not only is the racial makeup of prisons disproportionate; so is the economic makeup.
Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow argues that statistically, an individual's convictions have more to do with the color of their skin and their socio-economic standing than the crime committed. For instance, it is a myth that a larger number of drug users and drug dealers are people of color; they are just prosecuted at a higher rate. This is partially an effect of War on Drugs policies that created huge gaps in sentencing for powder cocaine (500+ grams = 5 year minimum sentence) versus crack cocaine (5+ grams = 25 year minimum) - by empirical evidence, both forms are equally addicting, both with similar effects, but one type was more prevalent in white society and the latter was more prevalent in black society. Imagine.
But policymakers during the War on Drugs also viewed "white" crimes differently from those committed by blacks, and they were combatting an image of criminality that was wrongly formulated. This is true of current society: our view of the prisoner is largely constructed by media and political agenda. But when people of privilege commit serious crimes (i.e. drug possession), they tend to make moral exceptions for themselves; they believe they "aren't as bad" as people in prison, since they believe people in prison, unlike themselves, are inherently deserving of that position in life. Just take a look at how many times people have tried to reform War on Drugs policies; yet, reforms have not been granted until recent years, when attention to upperclass opiate addiction has entered the limelight. Now our policies for drug possession have taken a more rehabilitative approach. The reality of the mass incarceration of our poor and our minority populations is, instead, a symptom of a system that favors the wealthy upper class. Just a few years ago in my area, a well-known doctor was driving drunk and hit a girl who was skateboarding. He left the scene of the crime. She lost her life; he did not go to prison. He had an excellent lawyer.
There are crimes that are heinous and unfathomable, and these are so much at the forefront of media that the public has built a vision of what a "prisoner" is. But not all people in prison have committed heinous and unfathomable acts. And not all people are prosecuted and sentenced equally. A divide exists, and that is where people need to take a hard look at their judgment. Our humanity does not separate us as much as we believe.