Jesus Is Preferable to Tasers

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

TNC:

You can claim that “decarcerate” is a word all you want, but Microsoft Word is telling me it’s not, and, as you know, I’m very corporate about these things.

I wouldn’t argue with you about the necessity of the call for reparations, and I agree with you that history is filled with strange and surprising turns. I tend to think that reparations may come about, but by another name, and also, not soon. I mean, this country is still in its suppression phase; we’re not Germany, which is dealing openly with the consequences of the worst thing it ever did (or more to the point, it was forced to grapple with the worst thing it ever did as the price for re-admission into civilization).

By the way, here’s a formula I’ve been thinking about that has pissed off the four people I’ve mentioned it to so far: The relationship between African Americans and America is in some ways less similar to the relationship between German Jews and Germany than it is to Austrian Jews and Austria. Which is to say, Jews in Austria today (all nine of them) walk the streets of Vienna knowing that most of their countrymen are still in denial about what their country did. All analogies are imperfect, maybe this one more imperfect than the norm, but the point seems salient.

One other thing: Your observation about the possibly imminent vaporization of sympathy for the disproportionately incarcerated is right—if crime rates go back up (as they are doing in some cities already), you’ll see a quick end to the discussion about sentencing reform. We’ll be back to Democrats building more prisons. And speaking of prisons ...

Look, Angola is complicated.

When you drive through the fields, which are filled with prisoners of the state—80 percent of whom are African American—toiling under the very hot sun without pay, does your mind naturally drift in an antebellum direction? Of course. Is what is taking place in Angola today slavery? No. Are some of the men in the fields descendants of the slaves who worked these fields when Angola was an actual plantation? Probably. Is that horrible? Yes.

Here’s the way I think about it, and this goes to the point we’ve discussed before, that the police and the prisons are just doing what we want them to be doing: Louisiana tells the people who run Angola: “Here are thousands of men we never want to see again. We don’t really care what you do with them; just don’t let them escape. And if they die of old age in your prison, well, just bury them there, if you don’t mind.”

And so the people who run Angola have a choice: Keep these men warehoused in cells and dormitories all day long, or put them outside in the open air. I’ve thought about this a lot: If I had the choice, as a convict in Angola, between lock-up, on the one hand, or field work, which comes with fresh air and the ability to move my body (relatively) freely, well, it’s not even a choice. And this is what the prisoners I’ve talked to in the fields all say. Within the reality that’s been created for them, working the fields is a better option. Of course, the even better option—and this, to the credit of the warden, Burl Cain, is what’s happening—is that inmates, even those in Angola for life without the possibility of parole, are being given the opportunity to seek actual education, and to pursue serious vocational training. This is what I admire about the warden: He believes, for religious reasons, in repentance and redemption. He is sincere when he says he wants to give meaning to lives of inmates the rest of society has forsaken.

How do I feel about the idea of religion making for a more docile prison? And, as you write, not just any jail, but a prison that is parcel to a great human-rights disaster? I suppose my feelings would be negative if I had a negative view of religion, but I don’t. The Christianization of Angola has probably brought down the violence rate; that’s a good thing, because people are alive today who would otherwise be dead. Of course, religion is being used as a means of social control. But this is a prison, so everything about the place is about control. The practical answer is this: I’d rather see the warden use the promise of everlasting life with Jesus, rather than tasers, to pacify the prison. Again, I'm analyzing the choices the warden makes within the framework of the reality he's been handed.

On the larger question, of course, prisons like Angola represent a failure of civilization. I’m not arguing that we don’t need a place to store rapists and unrepentant, un-reformable murderers. But there are so many people in Angola who could have been saved before they committed crimes, and there are so many people in Angola who have already paid, in years, what they owe society, but are stuck there for life because of the perverse way we understand corrections. But again, is this Angola’s fault? No. It’s our fault.