Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

October 16, 2005

 “To Set the Captives Free”

Rev. Catherine Torpey


I had a brief—and I must say, unsuccessful—prison ministry for a few months in 1996. A friend had been the chaplain for women at the federal jail in Brooklyn, New York, and when she had to give it up, she recommended me for the job. I went every Sunday to the jail and usually another day during the week. I ended up giving up the position after only a few months mostly because I had moved to Westchester County, 30 miles north of Brooklyn, and I had no car. Even when I’d lived in Brooklyn, it would take me an hour to get to the jail since neither my apartment nor the jail was anywhere near a decent subway line. From Westchester County going by public transportation, the trip took 3 to 4 hours on a good day. On a Sunday, when public transportation was even less frequent, it was nearly impossible to get there. But secretly, I was relieved to have an excuse to give it up. I had found it frustrating work. I had had a dream of being meaningfully engaged with important ministry—not working miracles but at least doing the right thing with enough success to feel good about my efforts. I had only recently left my position as Minister for Youth and Young Adults in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in part because I wanted a grittier kind of ministry back in New York. Going from suburban white ministry to urban prison ministry was exactly the change I was looking for.

So, I was sorry that I had not found a way to make it work. I wanted my ministry to be meaningful. And what could be more meaningful than prison ministry? I wanted to be of service to those in need. And who is more in need than a woman in jail? I wanted not to stay in a safe ministry. I wanted my ministry to challenge the status quo, to truly follow the call of the great prophets of religion, who, I’ve always felt, bid us to live an unsafe life. I ended up, however, doing campus ministry at Manhattanville College in Westchester. Not exactly an “unsafe life,” living in the richest part of Westchester on a college campus. Not what the prophets of old seemed to call us to. But practical needs interceded in my quest for meaning: Manhattanville offered free housing and a very flexible schedule that would allow me to find other work in order to pay for food. So much for gritty ministry.

I have been thinking about prison ministry over the last couple of months and especially the last couple of weeks because of a paper I am writing. I belong to a UU ministers’ study group which meets each fall in Ohio. I will be there for a week in November. This year, I agreed to write a paper which I have to submit today so that the woman who will be my respondent has time to write her response. The topic of all the papers this year is “Crime and Punishment,” and the name of my paper is “Theologies of Prison Ministry.”

One of the books I read in preparation for writing my paper was called Life on the Outside. The book is subtitled “The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,” and it tells the true story of an African American woman who agreed one day in 1983 to carry a bag of cocaine from New York City to Albany, NY in exchange for $2,500. She was not a drug dealer, although she used drugs periodically. She was not exactly a model citizen, but she had a loving home, four children, a steady boyfriend and a job. She was 26 years old. The man who asked her to take the drugs to Albany had befriended her apparently for no other reason than to set someone up for a drug bust, in order to ingratiate himself to the authorities since he was himself a drug dealer. Elaine was convicted under the Rockefeller Drug Laws to 20 years in prison in 1983, although she had no prior record.

What Elaine did was wrong; make no mistake about it. I do not wish anyone to hear what I have to say today as any kind of endorsement of her engaging in the drug trade. She made a foolish choice and it was appropriate for her to be held accountable for her crime. But the compassion I feel for Elaine Bartlett is because the punishment was so wildly out of proportion to her crime. And because of the injustice that was done to Elaine, I found real strength from her story. You see, this summer, I went through an experience that was very similar in kind (although thankfully quite different in degree) to what Elaine Bartlett lived through. No, I did not buy or sell drugs. But because of my personal experience this summer, Elaine’s story didn’t simply leave me outraged at the injustices in our justice system. I felt that, certainly. It didn’t leave me feeling mere pity for what Elaine had suffered as the result of one very foolish choice, although I felt that, too. Because of my experience this summer, I really looked to Elaine’s story as a source of comfort, strength and guidance. Her stamina (though not her youthful choice to deal drugs) was something I deeply admired as I read her story. I knew that if she could survive what she had survived, then I could survive my similar—but much lesser—test of courage.

My story, which some of you have heard a bit about, is that while I was at General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas in June, I confronted three African American teenagers who were behaving inappropriately. The youth and their adult supporters cried racism, and this incident has taken on a bizarre life of its own. It has been distressing to me to be accused of being racist because I believed that young black men should be held to the same standards of behavior as I would have held white youths to. This summer, like Elaine, I found no one in power to be interested in the truth of what had actually happened—much like Elaine, whose lawyer made no effort to defend her during her cursory trial. Like Elaine, I found myself caught in a system which had its own motivations, its own politics, its own realities and dynamics that had little to do with truth and justice, but everything to do with appearances.

I am doing my best to be philosophical about this experience and to take my own advice from last week and to choose to have no scars from it. But I tell you this story because it has been such a profound reminder that a person like Elaine Bartlett might actually be someone who has wisdom to offer me. I have a relatively high status in our society. I am educated, white, and a minister. Although my parents came from poverty, their steady work over the decades has allowed us to rise into the middle class. Elaine Bartlett, on the other hand, has a low position in society, as an African American, ex-con, living in what one might call the ghetto, with several family members in prison. On the surface, one might assume that it would be I who had wisdom and advice for her. And yet, as I say, this summer she was a source of inspiration to me.

Elaine Bartlett’s stamina while in prison was remarkable. She had been declined clemency thirteen years into her sentence, but a young woman named Lora, who came to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to teach classes, encouraged Elaine to apply for clemency again, helping her to navigate the politics necessary to be successful. “Clemency,” it turned out, “had little to do with merit and everything to do with politics and publicity. When Elaine had gone before the parole board the first time, she already possessed a thick stack of certificates, diplomas and glowing letters of recommendation. Yet all of those pieces of paper hadn’t gotten her released. Now [on her second round of clemency] she had an associate’s degree, too, but she did not think that was going to get her out of prison, either. For all the talk of rehabilitation, Elaine knew it was really the media’s attention she needed the most.” With her friend Lora’s help, Elaine ended up getting the publicity she needed. Charles Grodin, who had a cable television program, took up Elaine’s cause. When, her new parole board hearing, the examiners tried to provoke an angry response, she had learned to recognize the tactic and not take the bait. “How have you changed since your last appearance before the parole board?” was what they wanted to know. “Elaine …figured they wanted her to say that Bedford Hills… had reformed her. The truth was that she did not believe the prison had rehabilitated her. In her opinion, she had not needed much “rehabilitation” in the first place—just a decent education and a few more job skills. [But] Elaine [knew enough not to] explain any of this to the commissioners. Instead, she served up a few calm words in explaining what had changed her. At the end of her thirty-eight-minute interrogation, she thanked the commissioners, smiled sweetly, and leaned over the table to shake their hands.” In other words, Elaine, who had every right to be enraged, managed to smile sweetly at her parole board hearing and play the game that was required of her. Elaine had been locked up for sixteen years for one bad choice—a very bad choice, but it was one foolish choice. Elaine is absolutely morally responsible for her choice, but she also had a lot of justifiable reasons to be angry after sixteen years of incarceration. Elaine had not sought out an opportunity to be involved in a drug deal; she had been set up. As a result of the excessive sentence under the Rockefeller drug laws, Elaine’s children had been raised without their mother. Elaine had served more time than some murderers have served. Elaine served more time than Fleet Maull, the Buddhist drug runner whom Diane quoted earlier—Fleet Maull was an international drug smuggler for decades and Elaine served a sentence two years longer than his. Elaine had the right to be enraged. But she knew that that wouldn’t get her anywhere. She had to smile sweetly to her captors and tell them how being in prison had reformed her.

I took great comfort from Elaine’s story when I had to go to Boston a couple of weeks ago to meet with a committee of the UUA to talk about the incident at General Assembly. Like Elaine, I felt I had every right to be angry. I had simply expected three black teenagers to behave themselves and for that my actions have been labeled racist. Like Elaine, I have not had my day in court, and yet with Elaine in my mind, I smiled sweetly at the committee and did not dispute them, because it was what the politics and the institution required of me. I’m still not easy in my mind about having had to do this, but through much discussion with ministers whose judgement I trust, it seemed the only viable choice. In my own way, therefore, I, like Elaine, have been held captive.

Yesterday, one of our worship associates met with me to go over the readings for this morning’s service. After she read the piece by Fleet Maull, she paused and said, “You know, one could say that we are all in some ways in prison.” She’s right. In reality, of course, none of us here in this room now are in prison. I have no idea if anyone here has ever served time in prison, or might have family members who are serving time or have served time. If so, let me assure you that I am not trying to say that my little trauma this summer is in any way equivalent to the devastating effect of being incarcerated. Our criminal justice system in the United States is not something any of us would want to be subject to.When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, we saw poor, black Americans suffering beyond our worst nightmares, in conditions that were as grotesque as any we could imagine in the most corrupt and poverty-stricken societies. In the Superdome, a news team documented police coming through to rescue two white diplomats from Spain, while ignoring the scores of black Americans. The police shoved cameras and people out of the way and surrounded the Spanish diplomats to whisk them to safety. While awaiting rescue, one of these diplomats had told a reporter, “What we’re seeing here is a kind of genocide, really.”

Our prison system is a kind of genocide as well—or, at least, it is where the ugliness of institutionalized racism in America can be most clearly seen day in and day out. In another book I read this summer for my conference, the author writes that “New York’s prison expansion had become a jobs program, exporting black inmates from New York City to white caretakers upstate.” Typically in prisons, the vast majority of guards are white while the majority of inmates are black or Latino.
Looked at in its starkest terms, our current prison system is one in which the labor of blacks is sold by whites to whites, for the profit of whites. African Americans are not the only ones in prisons, of course, and although there are undoubtedly innocent men and women in prison, the majority of those incarcerated bear responsibility for being in the situation that landed them in jail. There may be no official, conscious, or even intentional effort to make the prison system a 21st century method of allowing white exploitation of black labor. But seen from any distance, that is what is, in effect, happening. The prison system is the quintessence of institutionalized racism. The disparity of those who end up in the system is due to many factors all along the way: from which neighborhoods and people are watched by police, to which people are treated more harshly by police, provoking reactive behavior that justifies greater punishment, to how the individual is perceived by prosecutors, judges and juries. Countless small decisions by individuals throughout the criminal justice system add up to a situation very favorable to white economic interests: fewer African American and Hispanic people competing for jobs; more jobs located in rural white America. These small decisions are sometimes unconscious and unintentional acts of racism, and sometimes conscious and intentional ones. And some of the decisions that send African Americans to prison are justified and free, or mostly free, of racist intent. It is nearly impossible to discern which is which. Why did Fleet Maull, a white man, serve less time for his decades of drug running than Elaine Bartlett—a black woman—served? All the small decisions that led up to their fates may have been justifiable, but the end result multiplied over and over again is that we punish blacks and other non-white ethnic groups way out of proportion to their behavior.

Which is why, of course, I understand the UUA’s response to my behavior. Any time a white person confronts a black person about their bad behavior, there is reason to be suspicious. Because of how deeply racism pervades our society, it is almost impossible to say whether any individual interaction between whites and blacks has been free of these all-pervasive prejudices. Which of the many small decisions that were made leading up to Elaine’s imprisonment could be labeled racist? Probably none of them. And yet, we know that racism must have been there, somewhere. Why else is it that one out of every four black men will spend some time behind bars? One out of four. That is racism—not necessarily because the arresting officer is racist (although he or she might be); not necessarily because the laws are racist (although they might be); not necessarily because the judge is racist (although he or she might be). But we know that somewhere behind all those seemingly color-blind decisions, racism lurks. We know because we see the effect: we have black people in jail, which is making a lot of white people a lot of money.

The solution? There isn’t an easy solution. But two things we should probably all be doing are, first, to advocate for prison reform and, second, to learn the stories of people like Elaine Bartlett, a woman who made mistakes in her life and yet has wisdom to share with us.

So many of the Biblical prophets were prisoners at one time or another that it would take too long to list them all. None of them to my knowledge were drug runners, but Moses was a murderer, as you might recall. Jesus, of course, was considered an enemy combatant by the Roman government and executed for his illegal activities.

The prophet Isaiah was one of those prophets of old who bids us to live an unsafe life—one of those prophets whose words encouraged me to leave Tulsa, Oklahoma and try my hand at prison ministry in Brooklyn. Isaiah proclaimed:
The spirit has descended upon me;

I have been anointed to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken hearted,
To proclaim liberty to those in prison,
To set the captives free,
To proclaim the year of rejoicing
And the day of justice.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
And as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
So the spirit will cause righteousness
To spring up all over the world.

May we each, in our own ways, help make Isaiah’s vision come true.