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Seeking Redemption: Private Prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown and All of Us

As we consider how and when to allow hundreds of thousands of incarcerated individuals in this state to return home, we must ask ourselves whether we want to resemble the son or the father in this parable.
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There is a moral tragedy unfolding in California and in many states across the country, and sadly, it's a tragedy with which many of us are complicit. Whether Republican or Democrat, Agnostic or Believer, Clergy or Laity, Young or Old, many of us from all races and backgrounds are standing idly by while lives are being sold and traded in a manner akin to slavery. This modern day slavery, the New Jim Crow, is being institutionalized through morally reprehensible contracts and agreements between our elected officials and private prisons. And we are all in need of redemption, restoration, and the courage to say, "No more!"

Jesus tells a parable about the prodigal son who left his father's home in pursuit of rebellious and riotous living. After hitting rock bottom, the prodigal son humbly returns to his father's house in search of restoration. Despite the prodigal son's insistence on returning as a lowly servant, the father welcomes him with open arms and restores him to a place of honor and dignity within the family. The brother of the prodigal son, who never left the father's home and always lived according to his father's rules, expresses his displeasure and bitterness at how compassionately his brother is received. As we consider how and when to allow hundreds of thousands of incarcerated individuals in this state to return home, we must ask ourselves whether we want to resemble the son or the father in this parable.

The United States already has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the State of California has the largest number of prisoners in the country. California has been under court order for the last four years to reduce its unconstitutional and inhumane prison overcrowding violations, but not even a Supreme Court order is enough to dissuade Governor Brown and members of the state legislature from advancing policy and budget decisions that focus on locking up "prodigal sons and daughters," rather than investing in their redemption -- and ours. Just earlier this week, the GEO Group, the world's largest private prison company, announced a new $30 million contract to lease private prison beds for the State of California. This is not progressive, this is not restorative and this is not in line with our values as people of faith and good will.

Governor Brown's strategy, and the state legislature's complicity, to circumvent the court order to relieve overcrowding in the state's prison system by contracting out correctional services is morally reprehensible. It probably does not help that, according to the Sunlight Foundation, Governor Brown is the 8th all-time largest recipient of GEO Group campaign donations, only to be outdone by private prison favorites George Bush, Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist.

There were moments in the last days of the legislative session that gave us glimmers of hope, including Senator Steinberg and other Senate Democrats offering an alternative to the Governor's original proposal to use state reserves to fund prison expansion. But at the end of the day, when the deal was struck and the votes were tallied, we were left with a bill that tied investment to a court decision and opened the door to further investments in private prisons.

Rather than release tens of thousands of inmates that have been deemed as non-dangerous, elderly, and at low risk for recidivism by the California's own Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (and thus comply with the Supreme Court's order), the Governor is signing contracts with Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group and other for-profit prison companies who, as a stipulation of their contracts, require 90% of prison beds to be filled. In other words, private prisons PROFIT from high crime rates and incentivize the criminalization of our people. Rather than see incarceration as the answer to all our problems, we should take queues from communities such as Richmond, Calif., which has stopped local prison expansion while reducing homicides by over 50 percent. It has done so by bolstering targeted services for those most likely to be victims and perpetrators of violence while insisting that more prison beds will invite more prison inmates.

A coalition of clergy, faith leaders and formerly incarcerated citizens of PICO California's Lifelines to Healing Campaign united this week calling for a new path. Rather than sign contracts with for-profit prison companies, Governor Brown -- and every other governor and legislature across the country -- should sign a social contract with those that most need our support.

Furthermore, AB 218, Fairness in Government Hiring (also known as "Ban the Box"), awaits the Governor's signature. This bill would remove the question about being convicted of a felony from employment applications throughout the state, so over 7 million, mostly men of color, can compete for gainful employment. There is also the TRUST Act bill, AB 4, which would end the detention of immigrant brothers and sisters for misdemeanor violations. And then there is SB 649, which converts drug possession for personal use from felonies into misdemeanors. These, and many other simple measures, would help to transition our state from one focused on criminalization to one focused on redemption and rehabilitation.

So the question for all of us is how we will be remembered in this unfolding story. Will we be the father who welcomes the prodigal son home without obstruction or judgment? Or will we be the brother who blocks the redemption and restoration of the prodigal son? Will we side with the private prisons industry and financial institutions like Wells Fargo Bank, who finance and invest in profiteering off the mistakes and misfortune of our prodigal loved ones? Right now, Governor Brown, the state legislature, and all of us who sit idly by have shown ourselves to be no better than the judgmental brother. We need redemption!

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