Reprinted with permission from Creators.
In the fracas over the First Step Act, the federal prison and sentencing reform bill passed by the Senate one week before Christmas, Urban Faith Magazine reminded readers that prisoners, too, are made in God’s image.
I never knew there was doubt about this, as prisoners are people.
In fact, I’d venture that prisoners might be made more in God’s image than anyone else.
After all, Jesus was arrested, imprisoned, tried and then wrongly convicted as an adult. Like so many of the 2.2 million people who are locked up in this country, he didn’t receive much of a defense (he didn’t want one, but you can’t waive your Sixth Amendment rights these days) and was the recipient of the death penalty, next to Dismas, the “peninent thief” and patron saint of death-row prisoners, and Gestas, the “impenitent thief” who, I am guessing, is the unofficial patron saint of recidivists.
The facts of Christmas make Jesus and his family even more like the people who are involved with the criminal justice system. When he was born, Jesus’ parents were essentially refugees, squatting in a cave or manger while they fled Herod’s Massacre of Innocents.
If police found the holy family today, Joseph and Mary might have been cuffed and arrested. Mary could even be shackled because that’s still legal for postpartum women in 27 states. Jesus would have been placed in one of our kiddie border jails or even shipped into foster care with someone like Herod’s cousin. And if his parents weren’t out of custody within 15 months under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, Joseph and Mary could have been cut out of the picture, their parental rights terminated.
In fact, the central irony of the Christmas story — that there was no room for the Prince of Peace so he had to come to life in a stall — is a huge contributor to mass incarceration.
Having no room at the inn — or apartment complex or sober house or shelter — for people leaves them homeless. This summer, the Prison Policy Initiative reported that formerly incarcerated people are about 10 times more likely to be homeless than people without convictions. The primary cause for the rate of homelessness in this population? Blanket bans on renting to people with criminal records, entire policies devoted to telling people that there’s no room for them.
Almost 50,000 people a year enter homeless shelters when they’re released from prison, and they’re the lucky ones. Countless thousands more have to live on the streets because no one will lease to them even if they can afford the rent.
Then we criminalize their lack of shelter by ticketing and arresting them for “crimes” like sitting on the sidewalk or trespassing, which might have been what Mary and Joseph were doing when they found a place for their infant son to lay his head.
We sanitize this savagery by saying we’re following “anti-vagrancy laws” as we move people who engage in life-sustaining activities like breathing, sitting, standing, sleeping or swaddling a newborn in public into closed, carceral settings, where they either start a criminal record or develop one even more, so it’s even stronger and longer once they’re released. And the cycle starts again.
The reminder we need now is not that people who are in prison or coming home are made in God’s image. It’s that the discrimination those same people face in finding a safe and stable living space is a daily, pervasive persecution, just like the one that would eventually be faced by a child in a manger.