Much has been made lately of the bold “In God We Trust” proclamation displayed on Mississippi’s new license plates.
While some have expressed valid concerns about the propriety of a government requiring its citizens to display an overtly religious statement on their vehicles, I would add an additional response to those who so defiantly insist on such a serious collective theological claim.
In God we trust? Prove it.
At the MacArthur Justice Center, we routinely receive letters from people incarcerated in Mississippi’s prisons informing us of the abhorrent conditions they endure.
Family members call with stories of extended lockdowns, inadequate medical attention, sweltering temperatures, leaking roofs and widespread violence.
We have sued the state of Mississippi over the conditions on death row at Parchman, and the Southern Poverty Law Center took Mississippi to trial last year regarding conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility.
A few years back, United States District Judge Carlton Reeves described now-shuddered Walnut Grove prison as “a horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”
A recent article in the Clarion Ledger addressed lockdowns and violence resulting from staffing shortages at several Mississippi prisons.
In that article, Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall lamented the legislature’s refusal to provide adequate funding for staff and improvements.
Stated simply, Mississippi’s prison system is a disaster, and there is no evidence that addressing the inhumanity of our prisons is a priority for Mississippi politicians or those who elect them.
This reality can’t be shrugged off as an unavoidable consequence of Mississippi’s “we can’t have nice things” political pragmatism. This reality is a window to our souls.
As many people in this very religious state know (a 2017 U.S. News and World Report article identified Mississippi and Alabama as tied for first in their list of the most religious states in America), the Bible has a thing or two to say about how people of faith are expected to treat their brothers and sisters in prison.
Hebrews 13:3 admonishes us to “[r]emember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
In Matthew 25, Jesus makes a connection between caring for those in prison and God’s final judgment (the Greek word “episkeptomai” having a connotation of practical care rather than just dropping by for a visit).
Psalm 69:33 assures us that “the Lord hears the poor and does not despise his own that are in bonds.”
In a state that so openly professes trust in God and adherence to God’s teachings, one could reasonably expect to find a fully staffed prison system in which correctional officers are well-paid professionals trained to keep inmates safe.
In a state that over and over again expresses convictions regarding the sanctity of life, certainly one would find a prison system in which the physical and mental health of inmates was tended to by caring professionals who are provided the facilities and programs necessary to ensure that those leaving prison are even healthier than they were upon entering.
In a state where deeply held religious beliefs are defended at all costs, it is unthinkable that our prison system would not include job training, re-entry programs and addiction treatment designed to make certain that those leaving our prisons have every opportunity to reconnect successfully to communities awaiting their return with open arms.
How is it possible that the most religious state in America, a state that proudly proclaims “In God We Trust,” would not have a prison system that serves as the model for the rest of the country?
The answer, of course, is that Mississippi’s prison system is broken because Mississippians don’t demand better.
We don’t march on Jackson, write our legislators or even post impassioned pleas for a humane prison system on Facebook.
Our prison system remains broken because we as taxpayers aren’t willing to pay more so our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who have been found guilty of transgressions can be rehabilitated safely and effectively.
We are willing to force correctional officers to risk their safety in understaffed prisons because we care about our own bottom lines more than we care about $11-per-hour employees in the far-flung corners of Mississippi where we warehouse prisoners (out of sight, out of mind).
Our system is broken because the citizens of the most religious state in America don’t care.
As someone whose family has been in Mississippi for generations and whose great-grandfather worked at the Mississippi State Penitentiary during the early 1940s, I know the odious conditions at Mississippi’s prisons are nothing new.
As a person of faith who received a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi’s foremost Baptist educational institution, Mississippi College, I also know Mississippians have for generations professed to be people of deep and abiding faith.
These two competing “traditions” have existed side by side in Mississippi for as long as any of us can remember.
In God we trust? Really? A look at Mississippi’s prison system says no.
Cliff Johnson is Director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, a civil rights law firm focusing on criminal justice reform. Johnson has served as a deacon in two CBF/Alliance churches in Mississippi and is particularly interested in the role faith communities might play in reform movements. He received his bachelor’s degree from Mississippi College and his J.D. from Columbia University.