Culture At Large

Racial Bias Behind Bars

Johnathan Kana

Racial bias plagues the American criminal justice system, and there’s new data to prove it. Last month, a sweeping report published by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School revealed a disturbing trend in the use of punitive isolation. It seems that minorities aren’t merely over-represented in our prisons; they’re also over-represented in the prisons within our prisons.

Analysts discovered that African-American males constitute 45 percent of the solitary-confinement population across 48 jurisdictions, even though they represent only 40 percent of the total prisoners in those same jurisdictions. By contrast, whites are consistently under-represented, and in some states the discrepancies are truly startling. Consider New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently ordered an institutional inquiry into racial bias after a scathing New York Timesinvestigation concluded (among other things) that black prisoners are 65 percent more likely than whites to be sent to “the hole” for disciplinary infractions. Though state officials cite exacerbating factors such as the relatively higher percentage of black offenders imprisoned for violent offenses and the fact that minority inmates are disproportionately younger, the Times investigators found that disparities persist “even after accounting for these elements.” So it's not merely a matter of behavior. It's also a matter of perception.

With the starkest discrepancies arising in cases where officers exercise wide latitude in defining what constitutes a disciplinary offense—and in facilities employing fewer black personnel—the conclusion seems unavoidable. This is racial bias at work, and it doesn't merely reflect the problem; it actually fuels it. Mounting evidence suggests that prolonged isolation impedes rehabilitation, so by disproportionately subjecting minorities to this treatment, we’re also disproportionately setting them up for failure and perpetuating the viciously degenerative cycle that drives the statistics used to justify their mistreatment.

Our prisons would do more good for society if they treated offenders the way God treats us.

Christians ought not to ignore such a travesty of justice; after all, our prisons wield the sword on behalf of a God who is perfectly unprejudiced in his judgment of us. Before him, we're equals in wrath, and apart from his prodigally impartial grace, we'd all be condemned to “the hole”—for eternity. Arbitrary differences in the way we treat one another are an affront to God, because the only privilege any of us can plead is the saving knowledge of his Son. And to truly know Christ is to understand that mercy triumphs over judgment.

Our prisons would do more good for society if they treated offenders the way God treats us. Though his discipline can be harsh, it's always fair; and it refines rather than destroys. Right now, we can say neither about our institutions. There's much work to do, and we can start by joining our voices with others calling for reform in the use of solitary confinement and other forms of punitive isolation. We can also strive to reach the corrections professionals in our communities with the transformative love of Jesus Christ, recognizing that theirs is a dangerous, thankless vocation that renders them especially vulnerable to prejudice. Only the Gospel—lovingly shared and authentically lived out—will enable these custodians of the least and the last to view their charges the way God sees them.

Above all, let's remember that one evil never legitimizes another, and that God has a history of punishing the punishers. Ultimately, prejudice can only be eradicated where it originates: at the grass roots. So let’s make sure we’re part of the solution, not enablers or deniers of the problem.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Justice