Mother’s Day in Jail*

This Mother’s Day nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children. Over half (58%) of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers, as are 80% of women in jails, including many who are incarcerated awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail.

Most of these women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, so punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support. And these numbers don’t cover the many women who will become mothers while locked up this year: An estimated 58,000 women every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.

   More incarcerated women are in jails than prisons.  Even a short jail stay can be devastating, especially when it separates a mother from children who depend on her.

                                      2,019,900 women are jailed in the U.S. each year.  80% are mothers.

   Most (80%) of the women who will go to jail this year are mothers. Beyond having to leave their children in someone else’s care, these women will be affected by the brutal side effects of going to jail: Aggravation of mental health problems, a greater risk of suicide, and a much higher likelihood of ending up homeless or deprived of essential financial benefits.

   Women who are pregnant when they are locked up have to contend with a healthcare system that frequently neglects and abuses patients.  A 50-state survey of state prison systems’ healthcare policies found that many states fail to meet even basic standards of care for expectant mothers, like providing screening and treatment for high-risk pregnancies. In local jails, where tens of thousands of pregnant women will spend time this year, healthcare is often even worse than in state or federal prisons.

   It’s time we recognized that when we put women in jail, we inflict potentially irreparable

  damage to their families.

Most women who are incarcerated would be better served though alternatives in their communities.  So would their kids. Keeping parents out of jail and prison is critical to protect children from the known harms of parental incarceration.  Research studies* have documented harms caused by incarcerating mothers:

  • Traumatic loss marked with feelings of social stigma and shame and trauma-related stress
  • More mental health problems and elevated levels of anxiety, fear, loneliness, anger, and depression
  • Less stability and greater likelihood of living with grandparents, family friends, or in foster care
  • Difficulty meeting basic needs for families with a member in prison or jail
  • Lower educational achievement, impaired teacher-student relationships, and more problems with behavior, attention deficits, speech and language, and learning disabilities
  • Problems getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy diet
  • More mental and physical health problems later in life.

   Incarceration punishes more than just individuals; entire families suffer the effects long after a sentence ends. Mother’s Day reminds us again that people behind bars are not nameless “offenders,” but beloved family members and friends whose presence and absence matters.

   I’ve written Weblog posts about the origins of American jails and prisons and how they’re based in part on Biblical and theological views of human nature; and the supposed values of incarceration to correct criminal behavior.  Despite research evidence to the contrary, many of our criminal laws and correctional policies are difficult to change.  It is time to give up our insistence on punishment and “just deserts” for non-violent offenders.  Justice policies focused on restorative justice are more effective, with less harmful consequences to individuals, families, and communities.

   Until we can change those outmoded and excessively punitive laws and policies, it seems wise and prudent for more of us to follow another teaching from Holy Scripture:

              “…I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).

*[This blog is a summary of a report by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer in Prison Policy Initiative. Supporting data and reference sources are available in the original report.]

Thank you for reading my blog posts in I appreciate your interest in this topic and always enjoy reading your comments and feedback. ~~Rich Lawrence

TAGS   Prison Policy Initiative   

Cell Phones and Justice

For Life” is a television series that premiered on ABC on February 11, 2020. The series is based on the true story of Isaac Wright Jr., who was imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit. While incarcerated, he became an attorney and helped overturn the wrongful convictions of twenty of his fellow inmates, before finally proving his own innocence. 

   I enjoy watching shows that depict the tough reality of jails and prisons, but I have to remind myself that they are primarily for entertainment, not educational purposes.  For example, cell phones appear regularly in prison scenes.  “Not realistic,” I say.  Their possession and use are banned for inmates and prison guards.  Cell phones do find their way into prisons however and can pose a security risk.  Inmates face up to five more years in prison for having a cell phone.

The Case of Willie Nash

          Willie Nash was arrested on a misdemeanor charge and ended up with a twelve-year prison sentence!  As he was waiting in a County Jail in Mississippi, he asked a jailer to plug in his smartphone.  He was not told no phones were allowed in the jail and was not properly searched when he was booked so the phone was not confiscated. The jailer seized the phone, Nash was indicted under Mississippi’s law barring contraband in jails and prisons and was sentenced to 12 years in state prison.

          Attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center appealed the sentence claiming it was grossly disproportionate to the crime.  Most states allowed sentences of no more than five years for possessing a cell phone in prison.  Furthermore, the only reason Nash had the cell phone was because jail officials violated their own policy by failing to search him. Nash never attempted to conceal the phone. The only reason authorities became aware of the phone was because Nash gave it to a guard. 

          On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed Nash’s sentence in January 2020, ruling that the prison term fell within the state’s statutory limits.  The ruling drew national attention from the media and the legal profession.  Despite upholding the court sentence, Justice Leslie D. King wrote a sharply worded concurring opinion, that Nash’s offense was “victimless” and that the case as a whole seemed “to demonstrate a failure of our criminal justice system on multiple levels.”

          The case highlights the disproportionately tough approaches to crime, depending on who you are and where you live. “It shows how punitive our system is federally and within states,” said Nicole D. Porter, director of state advocacy for the Sentencing Project. “It’s a window into the extreme prison terms that many individuals are subject to regardless of circumstances.”

            Mississippi Supreme Court Justice King agrees.  He said the trial judge and prosecutors should have used their discretion to seek a lighter sentence or avoid charging Nash altogether. “Nash’s crime was “innocuous,” King said, “and his criminal history showed he had changed his behavior.  Nash served his time for his previous convictions and stayed out of trouble with the law for many years. He has a wife and three children who rely on him,” King wrote. “Both the prosecutor and the trial court should have taken a more rehabilitative, rather than punitive, stance.”

   Nash, a father of three, is tentatively scheduled for release in February 2029, though he will be eligible for parole after serving a quarter of his term.

          Some legal experts have said that a nation’s quality of justice is only as good as what its citizens demand and expect.  The case of Willie Nash is a sad commentary on American justice, in a nation where many citizens consider this a “Christian nation.”

               “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue….” –Deuteronomy 16:20


For Life

Cell Phones in Prisons

Washington Post on Willie Nash Case

Southern Poverty Law Center

The Sentencing Project

A “Nation Under God with Justice for All?”

A Prison Chaplain Copes with Coronavirus

The year 2020 left us with more death, grief, and suffering than we’ve ever witnessed on a national and worldwide scale.  We welcome this New Year with the same hope and anticipation as years past, but now with more awareness of the ongoing challenges and difficulties we will certainly face in coping with the Coronavirus pandemic. 

          We’ve complained about the “inconveniences” and “infringements on our freedom” that came with required face coverings and social distancing.  Our true character was revealed through our reactions to the pandemic.  We also came to appreciate persons we tend to take for granted:  all the hospital care workers and medical professionals who’ve risked their own health and safety in caring for the thousands of persons who’ve been exposed to the Coronavirus.  Thousands of emergency personnel, nursing home caregivers, teachers, jail and prison officers, grocery store and other “essential” workers put themselves at risk doing their jobs in the face of the threatening virus.

          Compounding the tragic deaths of thousands of persons was the inability of family members to be at the bedside of their loved ones, offering a comforting touch or words of encouragement.  In times when they are most needed, pastors, priests, rabbis and church deacons are restricted from hospital and nursing home visits.  Church worship services have been cancelled or greatly restricted by social distancing requirements.  The only safe and viable alternative has been online recorded worship for parishioners.

          Holy Scripture has always offered comfort and consolation to those seeking spiritual help and sustenance.  Millions have turned to the online programming provided by churches.  The Apostle Paul wrote about his experiences and the difficult, challenging times in his ministry. He remained steadfast in the face of death, shipwrecks, and wrote some of his most inspired words while sitting in prison.

          One of the things I’ve missed the most this year is going to prison. I refer of course to the two-hour visits as part of Prison Fellowship Ministry.  All prison visits of family members and volunteers engaged in religious programming have been eliminated since March 2020. 

          I spoke last week with Prison Chaplain Bill Dornbush and asked him how the COVID pandemic had changed his ministry with the residents at the St. Cloud (MN) Prison this past year. Before March 17th when normal activities and programming were shut down 5,500 prison residents were in the Chapel each 3-month period for some kind of religious program.  After Mar. 17th: ZeroChaplain Bill depends on over 200 volunteers to assist him in delivering religious services. Now: none.  The prison population: before March 17th: 1000 – 1100.  Now: 550, due to construction and population spacing.

          What to do about the effects of COVID shut-downs on the prison?  Working with his supervisor and others, Chaplain Bill got permission to set up Closed Circuit TV from the prison chapel to the cell block televisions.  He had it up and running in 2 1/2 weeks.  Now they have 24/7 religious and spiritual programming running for those who have TVs.  

          The CCTV helps, but it’s not the same as personal ministry. He can’t hear them, listen to their personal concerns; can’t touch, pat on the back, hug, shake hands or even “fist bump.”  So, he personally visits each of the cell-block units every day, meets them through prison bars, offers encouragement, and provides written materials.

          The pandemic has limited his ministry, and it has taken a toll on both offenders and prison staff.  All must wear a face covering, all the time.  Residents and prison staff can face violations for not wearing a mask.  Just like “out here” in the “free world,” many complain about the face coverings, and “restrictions to their freedom”…!  They are well aware of the dangers and risks of not protecting themselves and others.  In a prison there is limited ability to practice “social distancing.” They all know this.

          The number of COVID cases in the institution are vivid reminders of the risks of living and working in the prison.  At one point, COVID positive tests spiked to 245 residents and 61 staff persons.  Prison residents who test positive and get sick are isolated in the segregation unit.  Solitary confinement is normally used for residents who assault inmates or staff, and other rule violations.

          Chaplain Dornbush reflected on the past year and offered a theological observation:

                   “In a crisis, our true character is revealed.”

          Sitting at his desk next to the Prison Chapel, he shared an experience in which three words came into his mind as clearly as if they might be the words of God:  We the People.”   “We the People?”  What’s it mean?  After thought and reflection, it came to him:  “Leaders, People of God: called to serve the people, not themselves!  God exposes those who do not live that statement.”

          Chaplain Bill does his best to offer words of hope in the face of this virus– hope for the residents and the prison staff, officers, Lieutenants, Case Workers.  His ministry has been tested and needed the most when a family member of an inmate or prison staff has contracted the virus, been hospitalized, and died.  They can not attend the funeral.  Bill is the “Pastor” to a community of 550 residents and 300+ corrections staff.

          With them, Bill is faced by the question: “God, what are you doing here?”  …and he does his best to offer spiritual assurance and hope in the face of the virus.

          Like hospital and prison chaplains throughout America, Bill does his best to live out the chaplains’ purpose: “Be Present.”  Bill concluded our interview with the words of that other man of God who wrote from a prison cell:

          “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.   Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4: 8-9).


Prisons During a Pandemic 

Prisons and coronavirus: US jails and prisons are turning into ‘petri dishes.’ Deputies are falling ill, too – CNN

States Are Shutting Down Prisons as Guards are Crippled By Covid-19 – The New York Times (

COVID-19 Updates / Department of Corrections (

Voting Rights for All Citizens?

In the nation that calls itself “the beacon of democracy,” millions of citizens are denied the right to vote.  Voter disenfranchisement includes convicted felons in prisons, on community supervision, and non-convicted jail inmates awaiting trial.

          The U.S. stands in contrast to 26 European nations that partially protect incarcerated citizens’ right to vote, and 18 countries that grant prisoners the vote regardless of the offense. The European Court of Human Rights has firmly defended voting rights for prisoners, calling voting bans a violation of human rights.  Our Canadian neighbors grant the right to vote to people in prison. South Africa has granted voting rights to prisoners since 1999, based on a firm belief that voting rights of every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood.

          America stands in contrast to most democratic nations in denying voting rights to millions of citizens.  Only Maine and Vermont grant prisoners voting rights.  The 2 million-plus residents of federal and state prisons are denied their democratic rights. The Democracy Restoration Act, a federal bill which would provide the franchise to all upon release from prison, has been rejected in Congress a number of times since 2008.   

   Efforts have been made in several states to lift bans against criminal offenders’ voting rights.  Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to more than 172,000 people individually.  In California, more than 50,000 people serving felony sentences had their voting rights restored via Assembly Bill 2466. This did not extend the franchise to those incarcerated in state and federal prisons in California but did apply to the right of incarcerated citizens in the state’s jails. Florida voters supported a referendum to restore voting rights to convicted felons, but the legislature blocked it until former offenders repay all court-ordered fines and payments.

   Despite these initiatives the fact remains that the United States, home of nearly 25% of the world’s prison population, denies to them a right that is foundational to democracy.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?   Denying offenders’ voting rights is as old as the American prison.  Kentucky was the first to disenfranchise people convicted of a crime in a 1792 Constitutional provision.  Other states soon followed.  The Fifteenth Amendment that endowed the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” briefly halted the practice during the Reconstruction Era.  Mississippi (in 1898) and Alabama (in 1901) adopted laws and policies against the federal mandate in denying convicted felons the right to vote (the majority of whom were persons of color).  Most other states adopted similar laws that have continued through the Jim Crow era and have multiplied the numbers of disenfranchised citizens through the era of mass incarceration.  

   Findings from The Sentencing Project research (Christopher Uggens, et al., “Locked Out 2020”) feature the following:  

• As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction.

• One out of 44 adults – 2.27 percent of the total U.S. voting eligible population– is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.

• In three states – Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee more than 8 percent of the adult population, one of every thirteen people, is disenfranchised.

• Nearly 900,000 Floridians who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised, despite a 2018 ballot referendum that promised to restore their voting rights.

 • One in 16 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 6.2 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.7 percent of the non-African American population.

• About 4 million former offenders who live in their communities are banned from voting. Of this total, 1.3 million are African Americans.

• More than 560,000 Latinx Americans or over 2 percent of the voting eligible population are disenfranchised.

• Approximately 1.2 million women are disenfranchised, comprising over one-fifth of the total disenfranchised population.

It is clear that disparities in the criminal justice system are linked to disparities in political representation.

 Arguments For and Against Voting Bans  

  Roger Clegg, former deputy attorney general under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush stated in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times “if you won’t follow the law yourself, then you can’t make the law for everyone else, which is what you do—directly or indirectly—when you vote.”

          Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project argues that denying offenders voting rights assumes that people who have been convicted for example of stealing a car, cannot be trusted to participate in deciding which candidate has a more reasonable position on military defense policies, publicly-funded abortions, or health insurance policy.

   Ronald Simpson-Bey, the Director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement for Just Leadership USA has stated that “Allowing incarcerated people the right to vote will strengthen their social and community ties. It encourages them to become assets to their communities instead of liabilities because it encourages legally responsible involvement and behavior in a civil society.”

    Christopher Uggens, et al. (“Citizenship, Democracy, and the Civic Reintegration of Criminal Offenders,” 2006) concluded that reintegrating former offenders as responsible citizens including the right to vote might strengthen democracy while preserving, and perhaps enhancing, public safety.

TAGS Citizenship and the Ballot Box Peoples’ Policy Project Democracy Restoration Act Locked Out 2020

Religion & Racism

In an ideal world the terms “religion” and “racism” would not go together.  The presence of one would be the absence of the other.   Persons who self-identify as Christian, Jewish, or other religions are ideally considered more accepting, tolerant, and inclusive toward others regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, or religious beliefs.  If that is our belief, then we fall short of acting on it. 

          Recent research by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that most American Christians believe that police shootings of black persons are not indicative of police brutality or racism and are isolated incidents.  The majority of White mainline Protestants (53%), White Catholics (56%), and White evangelicals (72%) believe that when the police kill a Black man, it is not representative of a pattern in the way law enforcement treats Black people.  Many White Christians in fact believe that discrimination against White people has become “just as big of a problem” as discrimination against Black people.

          Since the police shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and many other Black persons this summer, many of us White Americans have been reading from the wide selection of books addressing racism, white privilege, and white supremacy in America.  The books do not make for comfortable reading. 

          Topics I still remember from my college studies include “cognitive dissonance” and “defense mechanisms.”  My Psychology professor described these as universal human tendencies and not indicative of mental impairment or emotional disturbance—at least when not used to excess.  We all have difficulty accepting facts that go against long-held beliefs.  Denial, justification, and rationalization are common “defense mechanisms” used by all persons facing evidence contrary to our beliefs.

          “The inability of White Christians to see assaults against Black life for what they are has been more than 400 years in the making.  For White Christians to reckon with anti-Blackness as systemic evil agitates and disrupts White Christian complicity.”  –Melanie C. Jones, Union Presbyterian Seminary

          “(W)hiteness willfully ignores and denies evidence of realities that do not accord with narratives constructed by whiteness.  Therefore, individual persons and communities—churches, political parties—create and assert alternative whiteness-affirming narratives to explain away the unwelcome intruding reality.”  —Wil Gafney, Episcopal priest and professor, Brite Divinity School.

          “Racism…is eradicated by Christians only when we reject these myths and come to grips with the beauty of Africanness and dare to live out a new Christianity that is not beholden to European views.  We fight these myths by admitting they exist.  We fight them by facing the biblical mandate about what the Lord requires: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8). …. America is in need of antiracism activists, preachers, and thinkers who are not people of color.  America desires voices with a moral center that dare speak truth to power and walk humbly with our God.” —The Rev. Otis Moss III


Public Religion Research Institute

Christian Century: White Christians’ Views

Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds

Religion and Truth

Many Americans are uneasy with the ways religion has been infused into politics.  Religious beliefs that conflict with laws, court rulings, and personal freedoms have been divisive in our nation.  Religious freedom was nevertheless central in our nation’s founding. Politicians’ religious beliefs are qualifying factors for public office and government service.  Religious affiliation and beliefs are considered indicators of one’s honesty and integrity. 

Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers agreed on the principle of religious freedom. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a religion and guarantees the freedom of religion. Sometimes the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause come into conflict. The federal courts help to resolve such conflicts, with the Supreme Court being the ultimate arbiter.

The separation of church and state has come under scrutiny after the Supreme Court sided with religious conservatives in a series of rulings. One of the rulings allows states to fund religious schools indirectly, while another protects religious schools from federal employment discrimination lawsuits.

Americans have been debating where to draw the line between religion and government throughout our history.  The increase in religiously unaffiliated Americans seems to draw more attention to the issue.  Church and state nevertheless remain intertwined in many ways, with majority public support. 

          The Pew Research Center has identified eight facts about the connections between religion and government in the United States:

1) The U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention God, but every state constitution does.  God does appear in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and on U.S. currency.

2)  Most members of Congress are self-identified Christians.

3)  Almost all U.S. presidents, including Donald Trump, have been Christian.  Two of our most famous presidents, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, had no formal religious affiliation. Most U.S. presidents have been sworn in with a Bible, concluding their oath of office with “so help me God.”

4)  Half of Americans feel it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs.

5)  Americans are divided on whether our laws should reflect Bible teachings, but half of U.S. adults say the Bible should influence U.S. laws.

6)  Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) say churches should stay out of politics; and 75% believe that churches should not come out in favor of one candidate over another during elections.

7)  Only about a third of Americans (32%) say government policies should support religious values.

8)  The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that it is unconstitutional for a teacher to lead a class in prayer at a public school, though only 8% of public school students ages 13 to 17 say they have ever experienced this.

The saying that “politics and religion don’t mix” is supported by this national survey.  But this is not an overall negative view of the church and religion.  U.S. adults have a favorable view about the role religious institutions play in American life more broadly, beyond politics.  More than half of the public believes that churches and religious organizations do more good than harm in American society.  Likewise, there are far more U.S. adults who say that religious organizations strengthen morality in society and mostly bring people together

What About “Religion and Truth”?

          Is there evidence to support the belief of most Americans that religious organizations strengthen morality in society?  Does this mean that persons with religious beliefs and church affiliation are more honest and truthful? 

          Two common public practices support a belief in “religion and truth.”  Most candidates for public office are sworn in with their right hand on a Bible and swear allegiance to the constitution and the state.  While no religious test is allowed, most oaths conclude with the statement “so help me God.” 

The second practice that aligns religion and truth occurs in courtrooms throughout America every day courts are in session.  All witnesses and persons testifying in a court of law must first take an oath by swearing (on a Bible or raising their right hand) to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

There are cultural and historical traditions that explain the origins of swearing an oath of allegiance, honesty, and truth.  What seems most clear is the central emphasis of truth and honesty in Judaism and Christianity.  The Hebrew and Christian Bible (the Old and New Testaments) feature repeated references to truth, honesty, and integrity before God and our neighbor. 

          The well-known “Ten Commandments” feature two that especially pertain to promises of honesty and integrity for those in public office as well as for all Americans all the time.  Those commandments are the prohibitions against stealing, and against bearing false witness (Deuteronomy 5: 19-20).

          Failure to “tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God” is a sin against God and a violation of judicial procedures punishable under the law for perjury.

          When asked which commandment was the greatest one, Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

          The Bible contains very few references or guidelines as to the proper balance between religion and government.  But there is no doubt that “religion and truth” are invariably connected and recognized as essential for governmental and judicial procedures.

          “The truth”?  Yes, it’s something we ought to do.  But it’s also what is best for me, my neighbors, and the nation.

          Jesus said to those who believed in him:  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).

Truth and freedom?  Now those are religious and national values worth striving for and working toward!

Yes, “Black Lives Matter,” but ….

…All lives matter!    So, why this “BLM” movement?

Most White Americans are not aware of the extent and nature of racial inequality and injustice in towns and cities across our country. 

          We’re not aware of or don’t acknowledge our “White privilege.”  We’re not “personally racist”—but we don’t recognize the historic and ongoing structural and systemic racism in America.  We don’t personally experience racism because of our white privilege.  We don’t hear about stories of racist acts because most White Americans don’t have friends who are “persons of color.”

          The nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd have revealed the “other side” of American injustice.  More of us now see our own lives as examples of “White privilege.”  We are hearing and taking more seriously the stories and vivid images of racial injustice against Blacks and other persons of color.  More of us understand the significance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

          We’ve still got a long way to go, as evidenced by the ever-present “…but…” word in trying to understand or justify another police killing of an unarmed Black man.

Black Lives Matter Plaza, Sunday morning June 14th

    Black lives matter, “but” what?  Throughout U.S. history we have not acted as if Black lives matter as much as White lives.  Blacks have not been treated equally: not in housing, home mortgage loans, equal quality schools and education, equal employment opportunities, and more.  Blacks who did military service were not offered the GI Bill for low-interest home loans and financial support for college like White veterans who served.  Black lives do not matter equally in America. 

          We add the word “but” to explain why another unarmed Black man was shot by police.  “Okay, the suspect was not armed, but….”  But what?  Explanations vary.  “The officer feared for his life; the suspect was not cooperative; the suspect was running away; the suspect resembled a man wanted in a drug deal, a theft, a bank robbery, or….” 

          George Floyd was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.  No weapon, no lethal threat, but…. 

          The fact is that officers sworn to protect and serve all citizens equally in enforcing laws frequently act as if Black lives matter less than other citizens. 

          In an interview last week, our president disputed the “Black Lives Matter” movement saying that white suspects are fatally shot by police too—in fact, more Whites than Blacks are killed by police.  Was he right?  Yes, technically he was correct.  But like most facts and numbers, it’s a little more complicated than that.  Any comparisons must report the rates, not just the numbers. 

          Blacks comprise only 13% of the American population while Whites make up 73%.   Compared with their relatively small proportion of the 331 million people in the U.S., the rate of Blacks killed by police is more than twice the rate of White Americans killed by police.

People shot to death by U.S. police, 2017-2020

Black Americans:   31 per million of U.S. population

White Americans:  13 per million of U.S. population

      Research on the number and rate of police killings is complicated by the fact that there is no single database that records the number by the race of the person killed.  Available sources include:

Washington Post Police Shootings Database

National Violent Death Reporting System

          The president’s comment that more Whites than Blacks are killed each year by police is shared by many Americans.  After correcting for the rate of persons killed according to their proportion of the population, I did a review of recent studies of police killings.  The findings reveal more differences in those killed by police, and offer more support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

A Study of Homicides by Police. Researchers analyzed 1,552 police killings in 16 states over an 8-year period between 2005-2012 and found the rate of Black Americans killed was .48 compared to a rate of .17 for White Americans killed.  An estimated average of 731 people were killed by law enforcement officials each year in the United States during the study period.

Risk of being killed by police in the U.S. African American men and women face a higher lifetime risk of being killed by police than do their white peers. Black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police over the life course than are white men.  For young men of color, police use of force is among the leading causes of death.  Researchers concluded that their findings support policies to treat police violence as a public health issue; and the findings have profound consequences for democracy, racial inequality, and injustice.

Police brutality and racial bias. Out of the approximately 1,000 persons killed each year by law-enforcement officers in the U. S., Black people who are fatally shot by police are two times more likely than white people to be unarmed.  Analyses found differences between White and Black officers in use of deadly force.  White officers dispatched to Black neighborhoods fired their guns five times as often as Black officers dispatched for similar calls to the same neighborhoods.

A Typology of U.S. citizens shot and killed by police.  Analyses of police killings of citizens noted significant differences in the race, ethnicity, and level of threat posed.  Black Americans were disproportionately more likely to be killed by law enforcement and were disproportionately less likely to present an objective threat of deadly force than White Americans who were killed by police.

   Yes, “All Lives Matter”—but the “Black Lives Matter” movement addresses the documented fact that Black lives do not seem to matter equally in police encounters.  

A Theology of “Black Lives Matter”

   If the United States truly acted as if “all lives matter” we would not have higher rates of Black Americans killed by police.  If Americans insisted on police and all justice officials treating all citizens equally we would not see these disproportionate rates of citizens killed by police.  Despite the claims of many Americans, this is not “one nation under God.”

          “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:27).  Black people, like all people, are made in “the image of God” and should be treated that way.

          “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

          “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

          “You shall love the alien (foreigner, stranger) as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34).

          “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  The Apostle Paul writing to one of the earliest Christian churches emphasized equality of all persons.  The three most divisive barriers between humans—race, class, and gender—were meant to be overcome by those following the life and teachings of Jesus.


Police Actions and People of Color

White Privilege and Justice

MLK, Jr.: A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

“Our Difficulty Talking About Racism”

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was another in the long string of deaths of unarmed Black men and women by law enforcement in America.  The public reaction to this death has been phenomenal, with national and international protests involving thousands of persons—black and white, young and old, including many who have never engaged in protests against racial injustice.  The video of Officer Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while looking calmly at the cellphone and three officers standing by observing his actions made this excessive use of police force stand out from others.  The incident was shocking. 

          Reactions by local, state, and national leaders and lawmakers were immediate.  The officers were fired and criminal charges have been filed.  Lawmakers in Minnesota and Washington, D.C. have responded with legislation to curb excessive use of force by police officers.  There is not general consensus among the public and lawmakers about the most appropriate and effective response to police use of force, however.  Nor is there general agreement on whether the officers’ actions constitute “racism.”  Many white Americans do not acknowledge the significance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  

Americans of the “Baby Boom” generation born after World War II witnessed similar protests against racial segregation in the 1960s.  We followed the news of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he led peaceful protests to raise awareness of racial injustice.  Most Christians and church members did no more than listen politely and silently agree that Blacks were not treated fairly.  We certainly did not condone active protest movements.  The purpose of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was in response to a public statement of eight Alabama clergymen representing mainline churches.  They appealed to Dr. King for “law and order and common sense” in pushing for change.  The church leaders preferred a civil, polite approach focused more on education and dialogue than on peaceful protests like marches that blocked roads and bridges and required police presence for crowd control. 

          If that appeal to “peaceful protest” and civil, polite dialogue sounds familiar, it is essentially the same position most White Americans and Christian leaders have taken in the fifty-seven years since Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written.  

          The global protests following George Floyd’s tragic death were like a “wake-up call” to persistent, widespread racial injustice and police killings of unarmed Blacks.  Reasons for the protests are many and varied.  The COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” time has engendered thoughts and reflections on what we truly value.  Thousands of deaths and hospitalizations due to an unseen virus have made us rethink the true threats to our health and safety. Disruptions in education and the workplace; restaurants and bars closed; empty theaters and sports stadiums—this is not supposed to happen in America!  Complaints about inconveniences and “personal freedom” due to the pandemic were quickly drowned out by the unjustified death of another unarmed Black man at the hands (or knee) of another police officer.  

          I’ve addressed the issue of race and injustice in previous weblog posts, including Police Actions and People of Color, White Privilege and Justice, MLK, Jr.: A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

          The intensity and number of persons protesting George Floyd’s death drove me to read more, learn more, about why we White Americans have done so little to address the problems of racial inequality and injustice.  In short, it’s not a comfortable topic!  We seem to not know how to address racism.  We’re living in two worlds, black and white.  We go to school together, work together, celebrate music, entertainment, and sports together—but we’re not really “together.”  We self-segregate.  Dr. King was correct that the most segregated hour of the week is on Sunday mornings.

                Sociologist Robin DiAngelo claims “White Fragility” is what prevents White Americans from confronting racism.  She questions the claims of White Americans who deny racism, that they “were taught to treat everyone the same,” and that they are “color-blind.”  She coined the term “white fragility” to describe the defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged. We refuse to acknowledge “white privilege” and white supremacy.  Our discomfort and reluctance to acknowledge and talk about racism is so apparent that many Black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they experience it and see it.  White fragility is a barrier to change and holds racism in place.

          This is not a comfortable read.  DiAngelo challenges the idea of being “color blind” and that “race doesn’t matter.”  Few White Americans will admit to being “racist.”  We have the idea that racism is conscious bias and prejudice held by narrow-minded, mean people.  Seeing our Black-White divide as a world of “evil racists” versus “compassionate non-racists” is what DiAngelo calls a “good/bad binary.”  White Americans focus on our good moral beliefs toward all people and overlook the systemic and structural racism that has disadvantaged Black Americans throughout American history.

          Ordained minister and professor of Sociology Michael Eric Dyson preaches against a culture of whiteness in Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. Dyson’s central premise is that if we want true racial equality in America, whites must take an active part in doing away with the false idea of white supremacy.  While few Americans relish being “preached at,” the structure of the book may appeal to persons of faith who will recognize the chapters organized like an order of worship.  Readers should be prepared to hear the lament of a Black preacher who speaks from personal experience about the American culture of “whiteness” that shamelessly allows cruel, uncaring practices against our Black neighbors.

          Many Americans hailed the election of Barak Obama as the end of racism in this country.  “Postracial” was a term seen on social media and heard on the airwaves.   The election of President Obama surely was proof that Americans valued equality under the law and under God.  Many were skeptical of that optimistic claim however, and the last three years have proven the skeptics correct.  Racial inequality and injustice remain unchanged and Americans stand in need of reckoning with these persistent issues.  The editor and contributors of Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds offer concerned Christians the chance to clarify terms and issues around racism and how to respond. 

          The book challenges the myth of white supremacy.  In the Foreword to the book, the Rev. Otis Moss III writes that racism will be “eradicated by Christians only when we reject these myths and come to grips with the beauty of Africanness and dare to live out a new Christianity that is not beholden to European views.  We fight these myths by admitting they exist.  We fight them by facing the biblical mandate about what the Lord requires: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk with humility before God.”

          American institutions including schools, banks, government offices, housing practices, laws, and justice system officials have in fact acted and made decisions as if black lives do not matter as much as white lives.  Yes, the thousands of persons protesting the tragic deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed Black persons clearly understand the meaning of “Black Lives Matter.”


Police Actions and People of Color White Privilege and Justice

MLK, Jr.: A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

“White Fragility” Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds

Prisons During a Pandemic

One of the things I miss most during this pandemic is going to prison. Yes, you read that correctly. To be clear: as a Prison Fellowship Volunteer I miss the two hours each week of meeting with 25 residents in a state prison. The Prison Fellowship Reentry meetings are also missed by the inmates, the prison chaplain, and by the prison warden who requested the program as a way to reduce the rate of return to prison.


The coronavirus pandemic and shutdown made it essential to restrict prison entry to only prison officials. The challenge of protecting a prison population of 1,000 residents from the deadly virus is difficult. Three shifts of officers and staff enter the prison daily to work in conditions that don’t allow for “social distance” in the close living and working quarters.

Corrections officers and prison staff members are placing themselves at risk by working in close quarters much like emergency workers and hospital staff. The difference is that little attention is paid to them. They’re just working with convicted felons who deserve the prison sentences they got! Yes, correct enough. But like all criminal justice officials, those working in jails and prisons deserve safe working conditions.

There’s another reason detention centers, jails, and prisons must be maintained as safe working environments. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Estelle v. Gamble [429 U. S. 97 (1976)] that the government must provide medical care to those whom it punishes in incarceration. The ruling had a special impact on me because I was studying Criminal Justice in a graduate school located adjacent to the Texas Prison System where the case originated. The Supreme Court gave us a vivid illustration of how failure to provide medical care to those in government custody is a violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.

Thousands of jail and prison inmates have been released by states and counties, following guidance of public health and corrections officials to attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus through the corrections system. Priority for those released include older nonviolent inmates, those with a compromised immune system, and jail inmates held on an unpaid money bond. The coronavirus has been confirmed in correctional officers and inmates in some prisons and jails. President Trump indicated in a news conference in March that he would consider an executive order to release elderly nonviolent offenders from federal prisons.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected all of us in multiple ways, ranging from complaints about personal inconvenience to grief over the untimely death of family and friends. Faith-based and religious activists have raised awareness of the effects of the pandemic. The Jewish Never Again Action group projected an image of Anne Frank on a wall near Boston’s John F. Kennedy Federal Building. The caption below her face read “Anne Frank died of an infectious disease in a crowded detention center.” ( See “Deadly as Dachau” in Christian Century, April 22, 2020.)

Faith-based advocates representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups have pushed for release of inmates who pose minimal public safety risk from county jails, state and federal prisons, and ICE detention facilities. Smaller incarcerated populations will enhance the safety of both inmates and officers, allowing for some social distancing and some relief for the few medical personnel in the facilities.

Prison Fellowship volunteers regularly see the importance of religious programming and the pivotal role of Prison Chaplains in maintaining a positive prison environment. Inmates who voluntarily participate in Prison Fellowship and other religious programming take responsibility for their actions that landed them in prison. They are focused on positive change to prepare for their release back into society. Faith-based prison volunteers are drawn to assist Prison Chaplains in helping inmates turn their lives around.

Author and retired minister Donald McKim recently shared his thoughts during this pandemic (“Pondering in the Pandemic“). Three theological emphases of the Reformed tradition are: God is sovereign; God can bring good out of bad; and we can use the means God gives us.

We have all witnessed good, helpful, self-less actions demonstrated by people during this pandemic. Good things do happen during bad times. In his letter to early Christian believers in Rome the Apostle Paul wrote: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

We believe that God is sovereign in history and in our lives, even through pandemics. God’s purposes will be fulfilled, through good times and bad. None of us like being required to “shelter at home” anymore than prison inmates like being incarcerated. But through it all we believe God’s love is present and is expressed through love and caring people around us.

Paul prayed to God for relief from his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). We too pray for relief from this pandemic. It is my belief and hope that we will find some relief just as Paul wrote of God’s promise to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).


Deadly as Dachau

Pondering in the Pandemic