On the weekends, I’ve often been curious why cable networks broadcast so many hours of programming focusing on U.S. prisons. The shows typically feature interviews with men and women serving long sentences in some of the country’s most notorious prisons. The backgrounds are familiar – poverty, broken homes, bad decisions, violence, substance abuse – which lead to a downward spiral and an inevitable landing in prison.
These shows present life at the bottom. I used to ask, “Who needs so many prison shows?” Now I know the answer: we all do.
There are two reasons for my change of heart on prison shows. First, Scripture commands us to remember the people that society forgets, and lest we miss the point, the Bible gets quite specific; it includes prisoners alongside widows, orphans, the hungry, the sick and the impoverished. Many Christian organizations have taken Jesus’ words to heart and have launched vibrant prison ministries that meet the spiritual needs of inmates.
I’ve also come to see a second reason for why it is helpful to see inside our nation’s prison through these television programs: the sheer numbers of prisoners in modern America. Today, the U.S. has a massive population of people serving time, and that number has exploded in recent years. Particularly in the African-American community, the incarceration percentage among adult males has reached scandalous proportions. We can’t simply pretend they aren’t there, and these programs help us confront one difficult reality of our current culture. Our nation needs to wrestle with some hard questions, like whether we have sentenced too many people for too long in prisons that are too overcrowded. Are there better ways to rehabilitate offenders?
Further, as with any significant problem, we need to “follow the money” to determine if it is in someone’s financial interest to lock up so many. Evidence tells us that some entities in the corrections industry have a vested interest in maintaining a pipeline of prisoners, and that leads to some troubling conclusions. For-profit prisons and the creation of a low-wage prison workforce that benefits many corporations suggest that the massive U.S. prison population is not accidental. Thankfully, some reformers are calling for significant changes to our corrections policies.