Monday, June 25, 2007

Sound the Alarm!

This past Saturday, I attended the O.K. Program of Indiana’s 3rd Annual Awards Ceremony. O.K., which is an abbreviation for “Our Kids,” is a program that provides mentors for young African American males. The black teenage boys enrolled in the program are provided with mentors. The mentors serve as positive male role models. Mentors build personal relationships with the teenagers and, by means of a reward system, encourage success in school. On Saturday, students who had achieved or maintained good grades, good attendance to O.K. meetings, and had been good citizens received awards. Included in the package was a one-week field trip to Atlanta, GA for all who met the requirements. A handful of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) cops have partnered with the program to work with these boys. These officers work together with students, police agencies, schools, community members, and faith-based initiatives to provide support to young African American males. As I see it, this type of law enforcement is preventive law enforcement, rather than the usual retributive law enforcement – often disguised in the name of “justice system.”

During the event, the speaker – Sergeant Timothy Knight of the IMPD – cited a few statistics that sent me reeling. According to Sergeant Knight, among young adults ages 18-44 who are incarcerated, over 40 percent are black males. Of course, being the critical student that I am, I knew not to just accept these nauseating statistics at face value. I therefore decided to do my own research on the Bureau of Justice statistics on prison and jail inmates. The latest statistics on prison and jail inmates can be found on the U.S. Department of Justice website (Please see Harrison, Paige M. and Beck, Allen J, Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2005. May 2006). Relevant to our discussion are the rates of imprisonment among young minority men – particularly African Americans. According to Harrison and Beck, “When the total incarceration rates are estimated separately by age group, black males in their twenties and thirties are found to have high rates relative to other groups. Among the nearly 2.2million offenders incarcerated on June 30, 2005, an estimated 548,300 were black males between the ages of 20 and 39” (10). That means – from my own research – that black males within the ages of 20 and 39 make up about 25 percent of the total US prison population. This is different from Sergeant Knight’s conclusion of over 40 percent. The purpose of my research, however, was not to disprove the Sergeant’s findings. His numbers may be more recent than the 2005 statistics from which my conclusion is based (and I have asked Sergeant Knight to point me to his sources).

While I must admit that I breathed a sigh of relief after coming up with numbers far less than what Sergeant Knight had suggested earlier, I must confess that the numbers are still repugnant when one looks at the overall picture. African Americans make up about 12.9% of the US population. Let us assume that black males within the ages of 20 and 39 make up about 40% of the total black population – this is not likely; the percentage should seem far less if we are to consider ages of black males under 20years and above 39yrs. If 40% of the black population is males 20-39yrs, then this age group makes up about 5.16% of the total US population – again, the actual percentage would be far less, but I am considering the best scenario. What these results – arrived at from this crash course in statistics – mean is that about 5.16% of the US population makes up 25% (a solid quarter) of all incarcerations. For those of you who are totally discombobulated by all these mathematical calculations, let me summarize my research findings in words (with no numbers): less than five percent of the total US population accounts for over a quarter of the total number of incarcerations! Again, this is the best scenario; the actual numbers might be worse!

Every compassionate person would agree that there is a calamity. I do not think this is the forum to debate the issue that some people who are in jail truly belong to jail. I have been involved in prison ministry long enough to be able to opine that most people are in jail not because they are inherently evil – we all are; rather, an unhealthy environment is the primary cause of most incarcerations. In other words, most people are in jail because of the kind of communities they were born into. At least part of these young people’s crime is that they happened to be born into or lived in the wrong neighborhood. In my five years of prison ministry, whenever I have the courage to ask a prisoner why he did not choose a better path, I get almost the same answer every time: “There ain’t many other options for us. This is what you grew up with.” By saying this, I am not implying that people should not be held accountable for their actions. But it will serve us a great deal if, rather than be quick to judge and condemn others, we acknowledge that if we had been brought up in a similar environment, we too might become a statistic. On a more theological note, then, I have to remind Christians that our quotidian assertion that “I am blessed,” is quite a presumptuous claim.

With such high rates of black males being locked behind bars, prison life permeates African American community and prevents it from rising. There is a kind of vicious cycle – a whirling vortex that sucks young people in as it spirals downward. There are no male role models for these young people. If you have most of the men in a particular community in jail, then it is natural for young males to view transition from community to prison as the normal process. Sad to say that, in some communities, this may be as natural as kids in other neighborhoods transitioning from middle to high school! Let me say – knowing well that this might land me in big trouble with hardcore feminists – that when a community loses men, the entire neighborhood takes a hit, and the stability of the neighborhood is threatened. Indeed a generation of young people has emerged whose lives and very essence has been deeply marred by the prison industry. I do not have time to go into the psychological effects that these kids, required to go through security every time they need to see “daddy,” experience. There will definitely be anger, resentment, anxiety, and bewilderment if a child has to be searched each time he or she wants to see “daddy.” As young as these kids are (sometimes 5 or 6yrs), their only recourse is to mask their inner maelstrom. These kids are too young to express how they feel on the inside.

We need to recognize that there is a crisis. Rather than spend tax-payers money building more prison facilities, the best solution is to deal with the factors that lead to the offenses to begin with. This is “preventive” law enforcement, rather than the prevailing “retributive” law enforcement. If something is not done to rescue some of these young people, many who could have been saved will be damned. As many officers and mothers pointed out during the O.K. ceremony on Saturday, in most cases all it took was showing a young person that they were cared for. When some of these teenagers felt a sense of care and protection, all the anger, bitterness, resentment, and disdain for authority receded. Anger and resentment were replaced by determination and creativity. There is hope: with some effort, many of these teenagers can be rescued.

The purpose of this article is not to point the finger at any persons. We need to get beyond the blame game and acknowledge that there is a crisis. Yes, SOUND THE ALARM. Go and tell it on the mountains, over the hills, and in the country – there is an epidemic that is eating away a whole generation. Tell it with all your might. Tell it with all that you do and are. The prophet Isaiah says, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest” (Isaiah 62:1). For the sake of America’s future, we cannot keep silent. The fact is that we cannot turn this issue into a “black issue.” The task is greater than the black church alone can handle. The truth is that if we care about the future of America – not only of minorities – then we must raise the Homeland Alert level to the “Severe Imminent Threat, Red.” What is needed is an “emergency response.”

If there are any Christians reading this article, then let me end with a reminder of a simple but profound truth: We are all God’s children. And if we are all God’s children, then these kids are O.K. – Our Kids!


Kelly said...
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Kelly said...

This is great! They need more programs to mentor African American children, both girls and boys. Children need both White and Black mentors to make them understand life and give them hope to achieve their goals. I believe that some African American children believe that white people are in controll and they are accountable for the high level of poverty in their communities, so why change for nothing? Change should start within the schools while the chidren are young. Change their views of life, teach them the right way to go and give them a good education. I believe that some African American parents should be counseled and taught the right way to raise their children as well. African American women and young girls need to learn how to respect themselves and be intolerant of the degrading remarks publicized by rappers and the men in their communities, which are influenced by the rappers. Overall, I believe that many African Americans need more mentors to change them for the better as well as the other minorities who are faced with the same problems. White people should focus on teaching their entire race both young and old (who are not aware) how to stop stereotyping Blacks as a whole and open their minds to the bigger picture. This will surely change America for the better.

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