[Individual articles from the Summer 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
What are effective ways to help people in the United States learn about the history, scope and pervasive impact of mass incarceration in the country? That question animated an MCC U.S. working group tasked with developing learning resources for congregations, schools and other groups about the many flaws in the U.S.’s criminal justice system, including enormous racial disparities from arrest to sentencing to imprisonment. Recognizing that participatory activities can help people learn more effectively, the working group focused its efforts on developing a life-sized board game experience called You Got Booked (to be released sometime in 2019). Participants are assigned identities and resources which will impact their outcomes throughout the activity. These identities highlight the privileges and disadvantages that groups of people face based on their race, gender, citizenship status, culture, age, community and criminal background.
In You Got Booked, participants are split into seven groups. Each group chooses a representative to participate in the experience. The players have a goal to make it around the board once, while building their resources and avoiding a life term in prison. As in reality, each player begins with different resources. Some start with more money, housing, jobs and education. Others start without some of these resources. Others even start the game with a criminal record. All players are expected to reach the same goal, despite their differences in starting resources.
Over the course of the learning experience, participants learn about different facets of mass incarceration in the United States today, including:
- the exponential growth in the prison population over the past few decades;
- how the war on drugs, the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences and the design of bail systems have helped fuel that growth;
- how poverty, the ongoing effects of genocide and slavery and the lack of secure housing and access to mental health resources make people more vulnerable to imprisonment;
- how racism pervades the criminal justice system and how, especially in communities of color, youth of color get channeled in to what sociologists have called the “school-to-prison pipeline”;
- how the broken immigration system contributes to the mass incarceration crisis; and
- the challenges faced by returning citizens upon release from prison.
This learning tool emerged after MCC Central States sponsored a “pipeline to prison” learning tour in Louisiana. In that learning experience, two dozen people visited prison facilities, met with returning citizens and participated in a learning exercise that highlighted the impact that poverty, charter schools and suspensions have on the likelihood of juveniles entering the criminal justice system. After the learning tour, MCC staff agreed on the need to develop a resource that would help others learn of the many pipelines that contribute to mass incarceration and how policies and structural systems impact various groups differently.
Mass incarceration is a pressing moral crisis that the United States has failed to address. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. This crisis of mass incarceration is primarily driven by racial injustice at all levels within the criminal justice system and by high levels of recidivism. Prisons in the U.S. today are not serving as facilities that rehabilitate citizens to thrive in their communities, but instead serve solely punitive purposes. In prison, many people are not given the resources they need to reintegrate into society successfully upon release.
Harsh sentences for non-violent drug offenses (disproportionately levied against people of color) and a failing mental health care system that leads to prisons functioning as warehouses for persons with mental illness have contributed to the mass incarceration crisis. So long as the U.S. fails to reform its criminal justice system and to address the root causes of most offenses, such as poverty, racism and economic inequality, the mass incarceration crisis will continue.
Prison records present severe obstacles to returning citizens. Participants in the mass incarceration learning activity struggle to remain active players on the board after going to prison just once. Prison records, in the activity as well as in real life, create barriers to finding employment, housing and government assistance. Meeting parole requirements also presents challenges. “You do the crime, you do the time,” goes the popular motto: the mass incarceration learning tool shows that “doing time” continues far after prison release.
The learning tool also highlights the role that families have on outcomes for people in prisons and the impact that those in prison have on their families. For persons in prison, their families can potentially provide financial and mental support, including through visits and phone conversations. Families, meanwhile, face trauma when loved ones are taken to prison. For some, their imprisoned family members were the primary financial providers or caregivers for the household. Then, when relatives are released from prison, families in assisted-living or government-funded housing may be forced by government rules to move or separate from their formerly incarcerated family members in order to continue receiving assistance.
The impact on children of having an incarcerated parent is profound. More than 300,000 children go to bed each night with a parent who has been incarcerated. As Nell Bernstein has observed, “these children have committed no crime, but the price they are forced to pay is steep. They forfeit, too, much of what matters to them: their homes, their safety, their public status and private self-image, their primary source of comfort and affection” (3).
The mass incarceration learning tool allows those who feel completely disconnected from the issue of mass incarceration to gain a lived, albeit second-hand, experience of the stark realities of mass incarceration and of how the racial, class and other identities placed on participants shape their outcomes. Participants who are connected to mass incarceration through their families and communities have a chance to receive an overview of their experiences and relate to how a flawed system may have impacted or could impact them. Participants may experience feelings of anger, guilt and bitterness during the activity: a debriefing exercise is essential for processing feelings, but also for discussing opportunities to act to counter and dismantle the unjust system of mass incarceration through public policy advocacy.
MCC hopes that You Got Booked will be an effective resource for church congregations, schools, advocates, returning citizens and others wanting to better understand mass incarceration and that participants will leave the exercise ready to act. Let us change the way we think and speak of those in and returning from prison. Let us embrace all people and challenge unjust policies.
Cherelle Dessus is legislative assistant and communications coordinator for the MCC Washington Office.
You Got Booked will be available to borrow from MCC’s regional offices in 2019. Contact information for the MCC office nearest you can be found at https://mcc.org/contact.
Bernstein, Nell. All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated. New York: New Press, 2007.
The U.S. struggles to find a balance between justice and punishment. Many times, the criminal justice system creates more problems than it solves. Isaiah 1:17 issues a call to learn to do good, to seek justice and correct oppression, to enhance the voices of those sinned against and disadvantaged. Sign up for Washington Office action alerts to contact your members of Congress about important issues at mcc.org/get-involved/advocacy/Washington.
To learn more about and to borrow an MCC exhibit about the children of incarcerated parents, visit https://mcc.org/learn/what/restorative-justice/exhibit-when-parent-prison.