Friday, August 14, 2015

Incarceration nation

I find it tragic that the US is known around the world as the incarceration nation. We incarcerate a larger percentage of our citizens than any other country largely because of our ineffective “war on drugs.” We're chosen to spend our limited resources criminalizing the mentally ill and addicted, even though science understands that addiction is an illness created by chemical changes in the brain. Punishment cannot change the body chemistry of a manic depressive, a psychotic, the clinically depressed or an addict. 

Our justice system is more insane than those we incarcerate, as insanity is repeating the same behaviors over and over while expecting different results. Why haven't we learned from Prohibition? Outlawing alcohol consumption didn't stop people from drinking then and it doesn't now. What it did was drive the production and sale of alcohol underground, creating the Al Capones, Mafia, and other violent criminal enterprises, just as our war on drugs has created drug cartels, street gangs, and addiction driven crimes.

It's a basic human tendency to self medicate when in pain, physical or emotional. When we abandoned prohibition we regulated and taxed the production and sale of alcohol, creating a source of public revenue. When we realized that tobacco caused cancer we regulated, taxed, and educated the public about the correlation between cancer and tobacco. Let's take the same approach to “street” drugs. Legalize their possession and use, but regulate their availability, tax their sale, educate the public about their effects, and use the funds generated to treat those suffering from life altering addictions. Several other countries are already doing this. Instead of outlawing drugs, they make them accessible through doctors and clinics who control the purity of the drug and the amount. By taking the power and profit away from criminal enterprises, drug related violence, street gangs, and violent crime in those countries has decreased by more than 70%! Most of their addicts are working and paying taxes!

Let's put our resources into treating addicts not building more prisons! Let's address the social ills that create so much of the poverty and pain that drives addictions. Let's stop making our police the enforcers of bad policy.

Addiction and mental illness is a natural human response to stress, poverty, meaninglessness, family dysfunction, and despair. Addicts are not lazy and morally weak. Addicts are sick. Instead of blaming them for having inherited a genetic propensity for addiction when confronted with stress or painful situations, let's treat them, slowly wean them off of their drugs and counsel them until they no s jailing blacks and Hispanics has not solved our race problem, criminalizing drug use has not stopped people from using. Instead it has increased crime! Let's learn from Prohibition. Let's decriminalize, regulate, and tax drugs. Then we will have the resources we need to establish more treatment facilities, mental health and drug courts as an alternative to expensive incarceration.

Joyce Shutt is the pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.

learning from the past

Today's young women take their education, job opportunities, and career options forgranted. We oldsters remember when birth control was limited and abortions performed in back alleys and women died! When college's had curfews for women but not men, women wore hats and gloves and dresses to go shopping, only men's names were listed in the telephone book. and an unmarried woman was disparagingly called “an old maid.” I am appalled at the growing move to limit access to birth control and abortion, because the real issue is not protecting unborn babies but controlling women, their bodies, and their lives. If the concern was for the babies we'd have different social policies, child care and educational systems.

Remember the Clarence Thomas hearings when Anita Hill was pillared for daring to raise the issue of sexual harrassment? When many churches taught the “chain of command” wherein the man, as head of the household, had the right to dictate everything in the home, and it was legal for husbands to beat and rape their wives?

Fortunately, women turned the church and world upside down by challenging patriarchial language and practices. Back then our “brothers in Christ” insisted male references were inclusive, until they weren't. Men “preached” in church, but women could only “talk,” if that. I attended a workshop where the leader deliberately used only feminime pronouns when reading Scripture, referring to leadership in the church, and God. By the end of the first day, one male pastor acknowledged there was a language problem. After listening to only female references and pronouns he said he felt so excluded he wanted to leave.

And women pastors! God forbid! Women were considered too emotionally and spiritually unstable to think clearly or lead! Their monthly cycles and menopause, you kmow. So when Fairfield Mennonite called me to pastor the church in 1980 that was pretty radical stuff! Granted Mennonites are not the most progressive of demoninations,and after a lengthy application process we were told that while I had all of the attributes they (white ordained men) wanted for pastoral leadership, they (white ordained men) could not ordain me because I was a woman! Fortunately, Fairfield Mennonite did not accept “no” as an answer. I happily pastored Fairfield Mennonite for 20 years, building on my feminine perceptions and skills.. 
Much has changed in the past 50 years, but prejudice and discrimination persist. Women still get blamed for provoking rape and sexual harrassmen, implying that men aren't responsible for their sexual impulses. Really? The glass ceiling continues in business, athletics, the arts, politics. White supremacy is alive and well. Many of Obama's problems stem from his race, just as Nancy Pelosi is pillared because she is an asserrtive female. If she were male she'd be candiate material for the presidency!

While none of us can control the color of our skin or being born male or female, we can control our responses to the hand life deals us. Every painful experience carries with it the opportunity to grow and change, to better understand others' struggles, and to guarantee discrimination and bigotry stops with us.
We can learn from our past and make this a truly great country instead of defending the outdated prejudical ideas we grew up with.

Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.