Over Two Million

Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “as of December 31, 2004, there were 2,267,787 people behind bars in the United States.” This number is more than four times higher than in 1980. The U.S. incarceration rate now appears to be the highest in the world, even exceeding Russia and South Africa, and is several times higher than in most other industrialized countries.

Now, I would probably never be accused of having a bleeding heart. I think most of those people behind bars probably did something to deserve their punishment, and I wouldn’t advocate any wholesale releases. It seems likely that increased incarceration rates were an important factor in the recent decline in U.S. crime rates, which was a very, very positive development.

Nevertheless, I am disappointed at the almost total lack of public concern evident about this issue. It should be clear to us all that high incarceration rates represent a monumental failure of our society, and a terrible human tragedy. And it’s a tragedy that seems largely ignored and forgotten. If we shouldn’t simply release the prisoners, is there anything else we should we could do better as a society? What is our responsibility to those who find themselves in prison? I don’t know, but I have a few ideas.

1. Do more to see that prisoners’ rights aren’t grossly abused
Some accounts indicate that prison rape is remarkably common. What a terrible thing this is. Even if we’re too callous to empathize with the guilty prisoners, we could at least feel bad for the tens of thousand of innocents who surely must get swept into the system along with the guilty. Shamefully, prison rape is more often treated as a source of levity than as a source of concern. Other forms of violence and intimidation should be a concern as well, whether perpetrated by other prisoners, by guards, or by other prisoners with the approval of guards. It’s hard to know exactly how common these abuses are, but given that the brunt falls on the powerless, and given the general lack of public attention to these issues, it is easy for me to believe that they are all too common.

2. Provide opportunities for self improvement
Our first obligation to prisoners is to provide a physically secure environment, but beyond that we should provide opportunities for prisoners who want to better themselves. I’m not optimistic that we have the ability to “rehabilitate” most prisoners, but there are certainly a substantial minority who want to rehabilitate themselves, and we should be willing to spend the relatively small amount of resources that would be required to help them do so. I have some acquaintances that volunteer to teach basic mathematics to prisoners in California, and I admire their attempt to make a difference. Perhaps more of us could be involved in such activities.

3. Consider alternatives to incarceration
Much research indicates that spending resources on more police would be more cost effective in reducing crime than adding another year to the end of someone’s sentence. We could also put more and better resources into improving the probation and parole systems. Preventing a crime is obviously better than punishing one, both for the victim and for the perpetrator. Also, does it really make sense to lock up so many non-violent drug offenders for so many years? (Conservative crime expert John DiIulio makes some of these same points in this 1999 op-ed.)

4. Pay attention
For all the things our society does well, this is one area where we do abysmally. Nobody has all the answers, but I just feel that, somehow, more attention should be paid.

The sad truth is, the high rate of imprisonment is mostly a result of high rates of violent crime, and nobody has any easy solution for that. Recent lower crime rates give some reason for hope, but thus far imprisonment rates have continued to climb. If anyone out there has ideas how we can help make the best of this tragic situation, either individually or collectively, I’d like to hear them.

53 comments for “Over Two Million

  1. john scherer
    April 27, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    A brother from a ward I used to attend was sent to prison for something he had supposedly done before learning the gospel. Of all the welcoming souls that attended his baptism, less than a handful would even write him a letter. I contacted the missionaries nearest his prison several times, and they never visited. As a new Elder’s Quorum president I suggested in Ward council that we bring him the sacrament and was scoffed at that a prisoner is not allowed to receive the emblems. I was told this was chrch policy.
    I moved away and eventually we stopped writing. I suspect that he got involved with some evangelicals who came weekly to the prison. I don’t know what his crime is or if he even did anything. I do know however that we failed this man. We covenanted to comfort those who stand in need and he found very little comfort. He should be released soon and I don’t know if he’ll come back to our ward. But I wonder how much more I could have done and if I could have done more to help this man remember his covenants.
    I hope this isn’t a threajack, but does anyone know why the imprisoned are denied the sacrament?

  2. JustaGuy
    April 27, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    “Nevertheless, I am disappointed at the almost total lack of public concern evident about this issue.”

    I would wager heavily, Ed, in favor of the proposition that a major cause of this “almost total lack of public concern” is the fact that nearly half of those serving time in prison in America today are black. (See this Human Rights Watch report from 2000 for some of the relevant data.)

    “The sad truth is, the high rate of imprisonment is mostly a result of high rates of violent crime, and nobody has any easy solution for that.”

    The sad truth is, this is incorrect, or at least incomplete. The specific upward trends in imprisonment you highlight are mostly the result of 20 years of mandatory sentencing laws which, by arbitrarily distinguishing certain violent crimes from others (e.g., selling and using crack cocaine as opposed to powder cocaine), have devastated certain groups of the population (e.g., poor and lower-middle class inner-city dwellers, who are overwhelmingly black) while allowing criminals amongst other groups of the population (e.g., upper-middle and upper class suburb dwellers, who are mostly white) to mostly escape our lock-’em-up mentality. (See here for more details.

  3. April 27, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    I dispute your statement of the reason why there are higher incarceration rates.

    First Factor – American voters have asked for and gotten tougher penalties imposed on violent criminals. They are now locked up quicker and for more lenghier sentences. This crowds out cell space.

    Second Big Factor – is the failure by federal and state governments to implement an effective immigration policy and to secure our borders from all the riff raff flooding across to poach on the innocent. Consider the following:

    29% of inmates in federal prisons are illegal aliens.

    95% of warrants for murder in Los Angeles are for illegal aliens.

    75% of people on the most wanted list in Los Angeles are illegal aliens.

    Nearly 25% of all inmates in California detention centers are Mexican nationals here illegally.

    The FBI reports half of all gang members in Los Angeles are most likely illegal aliens from south of the border.

    The cost of illegal immigration to the American taxpayer in 1997 was a NET (after subtracting taxes immigrants pay) $70 BILLION a year, [Professor Donald Huddle, Rice University].

  4. quandmeme
    April 27, 2006 at 1:40 pm

    I imagine that most of the posters will, like me, not be approaching the issue with an open mind so I am challenging us to write about what we’re going to do about it in addition to imposing our takes on the issue.

    As a former detention officer (jail guard) and prison educator I agree with the thrust of the race divide and that observation on the the use of prisons as immigration holding facilities. In addition, we have shifted publically funded mental health and drug rehab as well as skill-centered (vocational) public education to prisons. It seems a logical extension of the campaign-promise arms race to shift the projected benefit of a better educated population to other programs even though it has meant spending many times that cost in processing and isolating eventual offenders.

    What am I going to do about it? Well I’m in law school now, but don’t feel called to criminal defense or offender vindication. Rather I identify with the call to visit the imprisoned and expect myself to participate as a GED volunteer rather than in helping them run their appeals again and again.

  5. April 27, 2006 at 2:05 pm

    Another core factor that never gets addressed but contributes heavily to this problem is the rampant entertainment media that glorifies violence, greed, and immorality. And a lot of the lower income class doesn’t know any better and tries to imitate what they see Hollywood portray.

    This is a huge area where the membership of the LDS church has failed to follow an important prophetic commandment given in the Proclamation on the Family which is for “responsible citizens” to rise up and encourage thier government leaders to pass good laws to protect family.

    The biggest factor having the most damaging impact on families at all income levels is the trash coming from Hollywood. The end result is more violence, prisoners, victims and broken families.

    Congress and State Legislatures should but a serious tax on all forms of broadcast, print and web media (especially the hard core stuff). This tax will help to restrict the abuse of free speech and help to repay society for steep costs of locking up prisoners, caring for their victims and educating them to the error of their ways when they act out the rotten suggestions coming from the mass media.

    But I fear that my call will continue to fall on deaf ears.

  6. April 27, 2006 at 2:11 pm

    One more comment, this last winter our Ward adopted a homeless shelter in the neighborhood. The youth made several trips to clean up the place, serve hot meals, and run neighborhood food collection drives. The adults made donations in the form of cash, clothing, christmas presents, literature and other desperately needed commodities.

    It looked to be a great win-win experience for all involved.

    In my last ward, we had the assignment to hold a weekly sacrament service at the local VA hospital.

    I think that every ward or stake should a adopt local charity or gov’t social service unit. It is easy way to find worthwhile service projects and get new missionary referrals.

  7. April 27, 2006 at 2:58 pm

    “…tens of thousand of innocents who surely must get swept into the system…”

    Quite a bit overstated and don’t confuse “innocent” with “beyound reasonable doubt.” But that’s somewhat beside the point.

    Right now I am assigned to home teach a man in a medium security prison. Because the Church does not have an official, recognized, and registered program with the state I am relegated to visits during visiting hours which causes a little tension between me and his (non-member) family. The prison bureacracy makes individual action on behalf of prisoners quite difficult and the Church does not have the resources in place to facilitate community action.

  8. Ed Johnson
    April 27, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    Paul, why do you think it’s overstated? The justice system is staffed by fallible humans, and there are a lot of people out there who don’t have the resources or competence to defend themselves effectively. I’d be surprised if the “error rate” is under 1%.

  9. Mike Parker
    April 27, 2006 at 3:34 pm

    With two out of three black children born to unwed mothers, coupled with the glorification of “gansta” lifestyle among black youths, it doesn’t surprise me that a disturbingly high percentage of young blacks are incarcerated. According to Human Rights Watch, “one in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in a state or federal prison, compared to one in every 180 whites.”

    Sadly, much of this is due to criminalization of recreational drug use. Decriminalizing casual use would go a long way toward solving this problem.

  10. gst
    April 27, 2006 at 3:57 pm

    My dad used to minister to LDS prisoners in the federal pen. in Marion, Illinois. I think he was a seventy at the time. He enjoyed it quite a bit. He said that it was the best reception he’d ever had to a sermon. I guess he’s like the Mormon Johnny Cash.

  11. April 27, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    “Sadly, much of this is due to criminalization of recreational drug use. Decriminalizing casual use would go a long way toward solving this problem. “

    I am of the opposite opinion. Recreational abuse of drugs leads one down the road to greater criminal activity and longer prison sentences.

    And which is worse – lock him up today for a 3-month minor crime to shock the individual into changing his ways. Or to hold back until he commits something that carries the mandatory 25-Life sentence.

  12. Lyndsey
    April 27, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    Roland – the “3 month minor crime” incarceration is a great time for a young black man to learn from those he is incarcerated with, to create ties with a community we certainly don’t want or need that young man to make. Instead, we could focus our resources on 3 months or 6 months or a year of job training, drug rehabiliation, and family counseling. That would be much less satisfactory to those who believe that legal guilt equals moral culpability, but I believe it would be a much more successful way to “re-educate” those who break the law. We could even start early with marriage counseling, childcare classes, and working on the reasons for the so-called ghetto way of life, but that’s probably too much ask.

  13. MikeInWeHo
    April 27, 2006 at 4:42 pm

    RE: 5

    That’s a highly debatable assertion. Restricting the “abuse” of free speech will reduce our national incarceration rate? If only it were so easy.

    And besides, we all know it’s not Hollywood that’s causing all the violence and broken families, it’s the gays.

  14. April 27, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    #11: What?! Where are you getting this? Recreational drug use is only “criminal” because we’ve made it so… decriminalize drug use, and we’ll have a lot fewer “criminals”. Treat drug use as a medical condition, and we’ll all be better off.

  15. Ed Johnson
    April 27, 2006 at 5:13 pm

    Whether drug use should be (partially?) decriminalized is a tough question…there are obviously costs and benefits to such an approach.

    I would just hope that we would remember to count all those people wasting their lives in prison as one of the “costs.” And not just the cost to the taxpayers of locking them up, but the cost to the prisoners themselves.

  16. April 27, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    In the last 40 years the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped from about 40% to 20% (inspite of immigration). During that time tobacco taxes increased to provide a financial incentive to quit the habit and the funds from those taxes were used to pay for public awareness campaigns.

    Why can’t the same be done for immoral media???

    Imagine in Utah a $2 tax per movie ticket at the cinema to see that bigname R-Rated movie. Use the proceeds to subsidize Hospital Emergency room care.

    Imagine in Arizona a $2 a month tax on your monthly cable subcription to HBO or Showtime. Proceeds goto improve state social services.

    Imagine in California an annual tax of one penny on Google for each of the 1 billion dirty pictures that are freely displayed by the search engine itself. Such tax can be reduced or eliminated if they setup a foolproof age checker such as a valid credit card. (The proceeds could solve that state’s huge deficits.)

  17. Yomo
    April 27, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    Good Post.
    This is an issue that is largely overlooked. To many have the mentality that these people are not people at all and therefore not worth consideration. How sad. These people have made mistakes, many of them much less serious than legally acceptable mistakes that many of us make and their problems should be important to us.

    I think that we really need to reconsider how we look at crime, to honestly consider if incarceration is the best option, and look more at preventative crime measures instead of just focusing on punishing the crimes. I think a lot of it is education, getting to schools at an EARLY age, and drilling into young minds, especially young boys, that certain behaviors are absolutely unacceptable (and be specific!) and show what the consequences are of those unacceptable choices(again be specific-don’t just say you go to prison-show them prisons-show them sex offender registries-show them that the consequences really stink).

    Also I think if prisons were more like real life, where prisoners have to work and that priveleges, just as life’s priveleges, depended on whether they worked/and or how much. I think this would give them greater confidence in their abilities, help them to prepare to return to society, help to have prisons pay more for themselves, and give prisoners some income on release.

    Lastly I think we need to be willing to give people more chances. I certainly understand that some choices, such as violent rape and murder, designate a line crossed which is to serious to usually consider second chances, but I think with many mistakes we could be more forgiving. This is especially true with the drug sentencing, which I think has just gotten way out of hand.

  18. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    April 27, 2006 at 7:20 pm

    And besides, we all know it’s not Hollywood that’s causing all the violence and broken families, it’s the gays.

    Mike, as someone who wants to have respectful interactions with people who have different viewpoints and lifestyles, may I say that gratuitously cutting comments like this make such interactions more difficult?

  19. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    April 27, 2006 at 7:29 pm

    How would you propose enacting such taxes? The problem I see is that there is a large constituency that argues that “dirty pictures on Google ads” and HBO etc. movies are just entertainment (we have stopped even walking into Blockbuster for this reason, and will let them know that via a letter), and that “morality” is religious. I wonder how to approach this in a society that seems to view free speech and “entertainment” as more valuable than morality. Any thoughts?

  20. April 27, 2006 at 7:54 pm

    The “War on Drugs” is part of the incarceration problem.

    If you lock up drug dealers for a mandatory 20 years, the drug users merely create more dealers.

    I’m all for giving 30 to 90 sentences to the drug USERS.

    It’s the USERS who commit robbery/burglary to support their habit and who drive up prices via shoplifting and drive up insurance rates.

    A friend who works in a prison sent me an email from someone who said the drug dealers in his neighborhood left him entirely alone, but it was the users who he feared would rob and mug him.

  21. MikeInWeHo
    April 27, 2006 at 9:12 pm

    re: 18 You’re right, M&M. I was out of line with that snide comment. Sometimes I don’t watch the sarcasm closely enough. Don’t know how to retract it from the string though.

    re: 19 Do free speech and morality compete in some way?

    re: 20 The kind of draconian punishments you propose could never be implemented in our pluralistic society and democratic system. It would require some kind of totalitariansim. I would rather deal with the no-perfect-solution drug problem in the U.S. than live in a country like China or even Singapore. And so would any thoughtful member of a minority religion. China handles its drug problem very effectively. They even execute recidivistic alcoholics! They also virtually ban the LDS church (Hong Kong notwithstanding).

  22. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    April 27, 2006 at 9:41 pm

    I think sometimes free speech is a trump card that is overused, and I could see this being used as an argument against taxation of “entertainment.” (I’ve heard too much of the “if you don’t like it, turn it off” mentality.) Maybe I’m jumping the gun on my assumptions, but….

  23. April 27, 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Sorry, I meant 30 to 90 _day_ sentences for drug users. Did you think I meant years?

    After all, it’s the users who are ultimately responsible for crime. The dealers are merely filling a need. And from a practical standpoint, it’s the users who cause most of the property and personal crime, not the dealers. The fueding and murdering drug dealer is overplayed in the media. Sure they get the headlines with violence and turf wars. But in terms of number of assualts, number of crimes, dollar value of crimes, number of personal injuries, medical costs, insurance costs, higher prices due to shoplifting/shrinkage, and number of victims of violence, the drug users do many times more damage.

  24. Mike B
    April 27, 2006 at 10:20 pm

    rolane: “I think that every ward or stake should a adopt local charity or gov’t social service unit. It is easy way to find worthwhile service projects and get new missionary referrals.”

    That’s a great idea. The problem in my ward is that it’s extremely difficult to get members to perform service to our own ward members.

  25. April 27, 2006 at 10:25 pm

    Bookslinger, you actually had me going with 30-90 years. I was thinking cool, run the dealers out of business by locking up all of the users. LOL.

    I agree with having effective education at an earlier age to warn people of the dangers that bad choices can screw up their lives and hurt others. However the abuse of free speech to readily sends the wrong message and drowns out quality speech.

    Our society is much better off if it can find ways to regulate harmful speech and to advance helpful speech. Especially when the audience includes the young and easily impressionable.

  26. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    April 27, 2006 at 10:28 pm

    After all, it’s the users who are ultimately responsible for crime. The dealers are merely filling a need. And from a practical standpoint, it’s the users who cause most of the property and personal crime, not the dealers.

    But aren’t dealers often users?

  27. jjohnsen
    April 27, 2006 at 11:31 pm

    Imagine in Utah a $2 tax per movie ticket at the cinema to see that bigname R-Rated movie. Use the proceeds to subsidize Hospital Emergency room care.

    Imagine in Arizona a $2 a month tax on your monthly cable subcription to HBO or Showtime. Proceeds goto improve state social services.

    Imagine a $2 tax on people knocking on my door, spreading filthy lies about a golden bible, and teaching my children that Christ is seperate from God. Please, when will these non-Christian polygamists from Utah stop trying to drag the morals from this country?

  28. April 28, 2006 at 12:15 am

    M&M, when dealers are users, throw them in jail for the 30 to 90 days like other users. And when they commit crimes like murder, treat them like murderers in the justice system. But putting dealers, distributors, and couriers (mules) in jail for 20 years costs over $500,000 each ($25,000/year, and even more when you amortize in the law enforcement and justice system’s up-front costs to track/arrest/prosecute). And that money could be better spent breaking the cycle on the drug user end. When you put a dealer in jail, there is another dealer in his place within 12 to 24 hours, and it’s business as usual. The drug-addict customers don’t get cured when a dealer is arrested, and drug use does not go down. Mandatory sentences for drug-dealing (aside from whatever violent crimes they may committ) do nothing to solve the drug problem, and just divert dollars and resources away from things that could.

    When law enforcement confiscates drug shipments and reduces the supply or drives up the cost of doing business for the drug dealers, Economics 101 says that the prices go up if the demand stays constant. So the users just steal more to satisfy their need. When they steal/shoplift more, retail prices and insurance goes up for the rest of us.

    If middle-class white people only knew what goes on in the inner-city neighbhorhoods, they would abandon the cities in droves so as not to be part of the tax base that is paying for all that.. Sure there are drug problems in suburbia and small towns. More than most people think. But inner-city America is looking more and more like a third world country.

    We could build a lot more high-security prisons to fill with drug dealers serving 20 year mandatory sentences. Or we could build cheaper low-security jails or camps for drug users to serve 30 to 365 day sentences, and use those to disrupt the drug-consuming lifestyle of those users who actually fuel the drug trade.

    Even putting a drug-user away for $25,000/year can be cheaper than the $25,000/year in theft, medical bills, and property damage that they cause, and the $30,000 to $50,000/year it costs to support their crack-babies and zombie- like sociopathic children who were born as crack-babies.

    A key to understanding the drug trade is that the dealers don’t create users. It’s the users and their demand who create dealers. The users are created by parents passing on the “traditions of the fathers” (doing drugs in front of the kids) and by peer pressure.

    Think of it. A drug dealer making at least $100,000 or more in net profit a year is not going to be interested in shoplifting, stealing cars, breaking-and-entering, or purse-snatching. He’s got a business going, and doesn’t want to attract attention. It’s his addicted _customers_, who can’t hold jobs or whose jobs don’t pay enough to support an expensive habit, who do the shoplifting, stealing cars, breaking-and-entering, and purse-snatching.

    Get rid of the dealer, and his customers just find another dealer.

  29. One who served
    April 28, 2006 at 5:55 am

    A very complex issue, and not one admitting to easy solutions. But it does seem that the higher incarceration rate has led to a significant reduction in crime, as fewer crminals are on the streets.

    The upsurge in criminals behind bars also correlates to the rise in welfare spending, the increase in unwed births, and the lack of a father in the home. The government declared war on the family, and it is reaping the results of that war.

  30. Lamonte
    April 28, 2006 at 7:31 am

    #28 The rise in the welfare state has taken a severe blow to the head over the past many years and yet the “upsurge in criminals behind bars” continues to grow. Look at the downturn in the 90’s in crime rates and compare that with an economy that benefitted people across the board, not just the privileged few. Believe it or not, most people want to make an honest living and when the opportunity presents itself to honestly support themselves and their families they will take that option over criminal activity every time. In countries with more of a social safety net the crime rates are traditionally miniscule compared to crime in America. Because people don’t have to steal to live those countries have lower crime rates. The get-tough policies of mayors like Rudy Guliani played a big part in lowering crime but the favorabe economic opportunities were equally to blame.

    I’m not naive enough to believe that there aren’t those who are more than happy to support themselves through criminal activity regardless of what opportunities are available. Those people reside in the board rooms of America’s corporations as well as the ghettos of America’s cities. But government programs designed to give a helping hand to those in need are not the reason our prisons are overflowing.

  31. April 28, 2006 at 8:43 am

    One factor not yet mentioned is that we have a prison industry that promotes incarceration for the same reason that Coca-Cola promotes drinking soda. California’s prison guard union has huge political clout that it has thrown behind such things as the 1994 Prop. 184 “three strikes” initiative and against Schwarzeneggers’s parole and rehabilitation ideas. County leaders lobby to bring new prisons to their corner of their states. The self-serving promotions are more depressing than the tobacco industry’s.

  32. Mike Parker
    April 28, 2006 at 12:27 pm

    Bookslinger (#27) makes some excellent points.

    We criminalized alcohol (a potent drug) once, and the result was increased power to underworld organizations, increased incarceration of recreational users, and time and money wasted by law enforcement that could have been put to more effective use.

    Repealing the 18th Amendment took all the incentive away from the black market and ended the violence attached to illegal alcohol running. We now treat alcohol addiction as a disease, rather than throwing drunks into prison. We socially stigmatize drunk driving, making it “cool” to have a designated driver. Stopping the endless, pointless, expensive, failed “war on drugs” would have many of the same benefits.

  33. Mark B.
    April 28, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    In 2005, the GAO released a report on criminal aliens incarcerated in the United States.

    At the end of 2004, the number was 49,000, or about 27 percent of the federal prison population.

    The report makes no distinction between roland’s “riff raff” who entered without documents and those who came lawfully and remained in lawful status (either as immigrants or non-immigrants) until their conviction. So, the 29 percent number roland cites is clearly wrong, and there are insufficient data to tell us how many of those criminal aliens are undocumented aliens.

    The report says that state and local governments received reimbursement from the federal government for incarceration of 215,000 criminal aliens in 2004. Since this is a total number, it is fair to infer that the number incarcerated at year end was less than 215,000.

    Even if the total number of aliens in jail at 12/31/2004 were 266,000, and even if all of those incarcerated were undocumented aliens (neither of which assumptions is likely to be true), then the overwhelming majority of undocumented aliens (between 10.8 million and 18 million, depending on whose estimated of undocumented aliens you believe) are no criminals.

    Which makes one wonder what it is about those who enter the U.S. from the south that makes them “riff raff”? Is it that they are hungry? Or thirsty? Or naked? Or strangers?

  34. Ed Johnson
    April 28, 2006 at 4:48 pm

    Mark, thanks for looking into this. I was pretty sure the statistics cited earlier were misleading.

    Still, that means that something like 10% of the prisoners are aliens, a not-insignificant number (although I can’t tell if your numbers count jails, or just prisons). If there are something like 25 million total aliens, it would appear that they are about proportionally represented in our jails and prisons. I expect they are actually underrepresented if you control for age and sex, since aliens tend to be young males.

  35. Jason Johnson
    April 28, 2006 at 9:55 pm

    WhooHoo – The prison/crime debate again! On the original issue about visiting those in prison….I have always wondered about that. Was the Lord referring to those in prison generally, or to those unjustly imprisoned? I only ask this because I have no idea who went to prison under the Romans. I don’t imagine they expended a lot of treasure locking up common criminals when they could just excecute them.

    One thing that has not been brought up is that in Utah (and I suspect other Jello-belt states) the Church does minister in the prisons. A good friend of ours was just released after spending four years as Branch President to the county jail. Another friend recently served as Relief Society President. High council members, returned missionaries and others are often called upon to help by giving talks in the meetings.

    And of course, we can all do a little under the principle of “do many things of your own free will”. I know one member in the area that volunteers every week to teach pottery at the State Prison in Gunnison. I don’t know how much we could expect of our wards. I suspect my Elders Quorum president is much more concerned with getting more than 40% of our home teaching families visited than what is going on at the prison.

  36. Mark B.
    April 28, 2006 at 10:25 pm


    I had intended to link to the report I cited, but forgot.

    The numbers did include both county and city jails as well as state and federal penitentiaries.

    The report can be found at http://www.gao.gov/htext/d05337r.html Sorry, but I don’t know how to make that a link.

  37. April 28, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    Ed, great post!

    Some accounts indicate that prison rape is remarkably common. What a terrible thing this is.

    Yes, it is terrible.

    Even if we’re too callous to empathize with the guilty prisoners….

    I hope no one is this callous. I can’t imagine an honest person thinking that it was okay for anyone to be raped. Can you imagine sentencing someone to “5-10 years in prison plus 17-30 rapes.”? No, I would hope that everyone would be appalled by rape, regardless of the victim.

  38. April 28, 2006 at 10:53 pm

    Re: difficulty of LDS to visit prisons

    I had this problem as I tried to visit a recent convert in prison. As was mentioned above, regular visitors can only come during regular visiting hours. In the case of my county’s jail system, that meant waiting in a line for an hour in the hope of getting a number that would allow me to set up an appointment for a visit. I had to do this every time I tried to visit. A short visit with the inmate could take up several hours of a day, and no visits were allowed after 6 pm or on weekends (so I had to skip work).

    I found a solution, however, that cost me a little time up front and was well worth it: I applied for clergy status. The laws probably differ across the country, but I was able to have the bishop and stake president designate me as clergy on a county jail application form, and within about a week I received my “clergy credentials.” I was then able to visit mornings, afternoons, nights, weekends, holidays, no appointment necessary. I didn’t even have to go through security screening anymore (this was a county jail, not maximum security). What was even better, is that I could bring one person with me each time. They still had to go through security, but no appointments or other hassles.

    The process is actually no different for ministers of other religions. They don’t just walk into a prison and flash a bible and get past the guards. They apply for a pass, show proof that they are actually clergy from a recognized religion, and then wait for approval.

    (I hope this is helpful to someone.)

  39. Marc Bohn
    April 29, 2006 at 12:57 am

    Thoughtful post Ed. I think this is a segment of society that we all too easily forget and dismiss.

    My dad taught me a powerful lesson several years ago during my freshman year in college. A longtime family friend was arrested in a somewhat high profile way and later convicted of some horrendous crimes. I remember feeling angry at him even though none of the crimes were directed toward us or anyone we knew. I wanted to simply forget that we had ever known him. Yet my father took time to visit him and wrote him very regularly. When I asked him why he would do this in the face the awful crimes this man had committed, my dad said that this friend needed us now more than ever. That though he may have made some grevious mistakes, it didn’t erase all the good things he’d done in the course of his life. My dad reminded me that the only unpardonable sin is denying the Holy Ghost (see Alma 39:6). Even though this friend had made mistakes that would now hang over the rest of his mortal life, that would likely ward off any chance at marrying and having another family (he was already divorced), that he could still come back to Christ and that we could be the instrument in the Lord’s hand to help him find his way back.

    I think we could all do more to reach out to those who find themselves in such circumstances. It may not be the most popular or highly regarded mission, and others may well think we are wasting our time, but surely people thought the same of Christ as he reached out to the harlots and the sinners.

    Thanks again Ed for giving us all something to think about.

  40. Marc Bohn
    April 29, 2006 at 1:03 am

    Mark B – Your comment #33 reminded me of another well known verse (though not scripture… I find it similiarly inspirational):

    Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

  41. Floyd the Wonderdog
    April 29, 2006 at 5:47 am

    I was bishop in a ward with a state prison in it’s boundries. We had a brother called (stake calling) and set apart to the prison ministry. His duty was to see to it that the brothers (disfellowshipped, ex-ed, or whatever) could attend a meeting and receive the sacrament (if worthy). Believe it or not, some still could.

    It was not unusual to have visitors at church who were in the area to visit a family member in the prison and had stayed over to attend church.

  42. April 29, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    Brian (#38): Thanks for the tip. I’ve done something similar at hospitals with similar success, but hadn’t thought of trying that at a jail….

  43. April 29, 2006 at 8:10 pm

    If I remember correctly, JS was in jail quite a few times, as were many of his companions.
    Paul and Peter were in chains.
    Christ was arrested, sentenced, and slain.

    To assume that a person in jail is guilty, because “the law” found him so, is VERY assuming.
    To assume that a person not in jail is innocent, because ??, is also VERY assuming.

    When a great part of the prisoners have ADD, I think it would be much more economical–in every sense of the word–to treat ADD instead of send them to jail.

    When many of the prisoners are in for drug use, that also doesn’t make sense. Marijuana can get you 20 years. Why is marijuana so evil, yet alcohol is ok? Why is marijuana worse than cocaine? Were all these users hurting people? Would it be better to concentrate on serious crimes instead?

    Yes, many are calloused enough to think/ feel that way–“you knew before you did it, yet you still did it, so you deserve whatever you get there”.

    Yes, it’s a lot about kickbacks, contracts, construction, jobs, etc.

    Sounds like time for a viewing of “The Shawshank Redemption”. Or better yet, going.

  44. smb
    April 30, 2006 at 6:10 am

    fascinating topic. a few thoughts.
    1. re: the tax on R-rated movies proposal. it gets hard to establish a hierarchy of sins that is consistent among spiritual people. Someone might counter that there ought to be a tax on people who don’t visit prisoners or a tax on juries that differentially convict african american suspects over white suspects. Or a special tax on people who “grind” the poor. How will Jesus/God deal with someone who watched R-rated movies but visited the sick, supported the poor, cared for the prisoner vs. someone who owned large houses, felt safer knowing black men are safely in jail and never watched a film rated beyond PG? I think it’s hard to predict, and if it’s hard to understand within a given religion, how much harder to establish in a nation based on several different religions (ps I hate pornography and don’t mean to imply that I don’t by this post).
    2. on prohibition and drugs. It’s hard for LDS to have a reliable sentiment on this front because of our kosher laws. re: alcohol, it has, in addition to significant abuse, a healthy and accepted role in many people’s lives. it can be a disaster, but it can also be a source of great, healthy pleasure, and can make you live longer (particularly if it’s red wine). re: marijuana, except in the sense of “gateway” drug, it’s been hard to find much if any evidence for harm. re: cocaine, the buzz is more intense, the abuse potential more present, and the actual physical harm more immediate. re: heroin, I am unable to think of a legitimate use for this form of opium.
    I have no objection to harm-reduction (providing clean needles), but in my experience with heroin users, it is extremely dangerous. I’m not sure what should be legal and what shouldn’t, but I would think that one of the prices of legality would be some kind of a tax to provide rehabilitation services to those who are addicted to the given substance, some kind of “insurance” to deal with the possible harm that can result.
    3. On prisoners, except in the case of truly soulless sociopaths (who exist, but in fewer numbers than our prison population data would suggest), there’s a lot to love and to try to help. in the hospital we periodically care for prisoners and do our best to provide kind, compassionate care. it is my specific and explicit goal to provide for them the exact same medical care I would provide to a member of the Boston brahmin. that is hard to pull off in our current environment, but i feel the spirit collaborating with me when I treat them as honorable humans. It can be frustrating to save lives to see them forever imprisoned, but I feel the respectful interaction is meaningful regardless.
    4. I’m surprised we haven’t seen (unless I missed it on my comment review) a suggestion that we read Joseph Smith’s presidential platform, “General Smith’s Views on the Government and Policy of the U.S.”

    Petition your state legislature to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries: blessing them as they go, and saying to them in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more. Advise your legislators when they make laws for larceny, burglary or any felony, to make the penalty applicable to work upon the roads, public works, or any place where the culprit can be taught more wisdom and more virtue; and become more enlighted. Rigor and seclusion will never do as much to reform the propensities of man, as reason and friendship. Murder only can claim confinement or death. Let the penitentiaries be turned into seminaries of learning, where intelligence, like the angels of heaven, would banish such fragments of barbarism: Imprisonment for debt is a meaner practice than the savage tolerates with all his ferocity; “Amor vincit amnia.â€? Love conquers all.

  45. gst
    April 30, 2006 at 10:30 am

    Grego, The Shawshank Redemption is a fairy tale wherein all prisoners are noble and all guards are sadists, and it should inform our view of prisons about as much as Finding Nemo should inform our view of oceans.

  46. Marc Bohn
    April 30, 2006 at 12:14 pm

    Okay gst. Go watch Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line or Murder on a Sunday Morning. Two extraordinary documentaries that should leave you troubled and can’t be written off as some “fairy tale.” You can also poke around the Innocence Project… they’ve helped exhonerate 175 wrongly convicted people.

  47. DavidH
    April 30, 2006 at 12:23 pm


    I was not aware that was part of Joseph’s platform. I thought I was verging on left-wing radicalism (or anarchism) by fervently agreeing with Anthony Kennedy’s conclusion about our prison system: “Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.” http://www.supremecourtus.gov/publicinfo/speeches/sp_08-09-03.html

    Do you have a link to Joseph’s platform?

  48. April 30, 2006 at 4:37 pm

    Rather I identify with the call to visit the imprisoned and expect myself to participate as a GED volunteer rather than in helping them run their appeals again and again

    Nicely said. I always assumed that Christ was talking about the guilty in prison.

    bout as much as Finding Nemo should inform our view of oceans — what, the fish really don’t talk and have schools?!

    The difficult time will come if we go forward with some plans to outsource prisons to third world countries. That leads to all sorts of things.

  49. Clair
    April 30, 2006 at 6:11 pm

    SMB, #44: Thanks for posting Joseph’s view of incarceration. I was just looking for it. His view was shaped by his 6 months in Liberty Jail, in which he saw that idle imprisonment can be spiritually devastating. Although, in his case at least, it nurtured some of the most profound inspiration.

    Some research supports the notion that the recent drop in crime is due largely to changing demographics. In particular, Roe v. Wade allowed mothers in unstable circumstances to abort an entire generation of would-be criminals. If that decision is overturned, we will need to increase our ministry to those families.

  50. April 30, 2006 at 8:13 pm

    The claim that abortion of would-be criminals reduced the crime-rate has been debunked. Not only was the guy’s data flawed, but his analysis was shown to be wrong. When the real numbers were used, and the correct computations done, it was shown there was no correlation.

    However, demographics does play into it. People generally stop committing violent crimes when they hit 40. So as the majority of the baby-boomers turned 40, the number of people in their “crime committing years” was reduced in terms of a percentage of the overall population.

    If I remember correctly, the last year of the baby boom was 1957. So the tail end of the boomers are 49 this year.

  51. Clair
    April 30, 2006 at 8:38 pm

    50. The claim that abortion of would-be criminals reduced the crime-rate has been debunked.

    That appears to be an overstatement. The data and conclusions have been challenged, but inquiries of this type take years to play out. Only frauds are debunked, and Levitt’s serious work is not a fraud, even if his popular book is overhyped. Let’s be patient, and watch the peer-reviewed journals, not the blogs.

    From the oft-cited WSJ article (11/28/05) on the challenges:

    Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor who helped referee Mr. Levitt’s original abortion submission to the Quarterly Journal of Economics, said the Foote critique isn’t damning, though it does suggest the impact of abortion on crime has not been as strong as Mr. Levitt has argued. “These guys have put the [data] through the wringer,” Mr. Glaeser says of Mr. Foote and his research assistant. “There is no question that the results get smaller and weaker, but there still seems to be something there.”

  52. Clair
    April 30, 2006 at 9:12 pm

    Sorry about the prior diversion into crime data.

    As a missionary in New Orleans in 1970, we taught a family whose husband & father was in the local prison. We visited him twice, to introduce ourselves and see how he was doing. I believe he was arrested on a check fraud charge, or something similar. He was really down. I had the impression that life had been hard on him for a long time. That prison had a reputation for being a tough place, not changed much in a hundred years. He came to our second visit bruised from a beating. I don’t know the details. We sat around a table to visit, not through bars or glass, so he must not have been considered too threatening. Our missionary cards got us into the prison without much fuss, which surprised me a bit.

    Anyway, he was cordial and gave his blessing on our teaching and baptizing his family, which we did. Being missionaries, and young, and short-attentioned, we moved on and lost touch with them. They were a good family and had friends already among the members there, who introduced us to the family.

  53. Marc Bohn
    May 2, 2006 at 9:47 pm

    Interesting article on BYU’s NewsNet on LDS Church efforts at local Utah County prisons.

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