Prison Gangs and Race Relations

I think there’s a lesson we could learn from prison about race relations.  

I’ve been following and grieving the stories of racial unrest in America. I circle a mental map that goes from sorrow to guilt to frustration and, with the next terrible news story, back to sorrow. Maybe you know that circuit. This is a complex issue with a long history and I think it’s dangerous to draw any simple conclusions, but at the risk of diminishing this issue’s complexity, I’d like to try to shed light on its morality.  

My dad does prison ministry. About once a month, he spends a weekend with men who are accustomed to facing danger and hopelessness. Many of these men will never be free again. Some will be executed. These aren’t guys who didn’t pay their speeding tickets. Dad tells me that almost every inmate at maximum security prisons is in a gang. You can’t go it alone inside. You need the protection of a pack. And gangs are inevitably organized around race. Dad’s understanding, based on years of talking to prisoners, is that race is the primary segregating and identifying factor, not because of racism among the inmates; many of them arrive in prison with benign goodwill toward people of other races. Race becomes a divider because it is the most simple and recognizable tribal identifier. It’s the lowest common denominator. And people organize around the lowest common denominator when all other virtues and values are stripped away. When there is no higher order or more virtuous code to embrace. In prison, there is very little opportunity to pursue or express any value except that of self-preservation and service to the pecking order. You live to stay alive. This dynamic is one of the things that makes our prison system inhumane. In many ways, people serving long prison sentences become animals. They organize into packs whose highest aim is survival.  

As I circle the emotional toilet drain of reactions to the current state of American race relations, I can’t help but notice similarities to prison. Our streets are looking more and more like the stir because we are losing more and more of the structures that keep them from being so. The former inmate and evangelist Charles Colson used to say that humans must necessarily be governed by some law — either a moral law written on their hearts, or martial law kicking down their door. Those are the poles; there is no third. We cannot move away from one without moving toward the other.  

My pastor has taken to saying that our current racial unrest must be addressed politically, but it can only be healed spiritually. The racial tension tearing our cities apart is certainly a political problem. It’s also an economic, educational, cultural, and scientific problem. But beneath all those layers, it is a spiritual problem, because the actors in it are not animals or economic instruments. They are spiritual beings — children of the God of Peace.  

This is a lesson we absolutely must learn. Our social problems are spiritual problems. And people who see them differently than we do are spiritual beings just like us. Wouldn’t it be something if our society's most urgent rescue came from lessons we learned from those our society has most systematically mistreated? What if the least of these have something important to say to the rest of these? What if racial divides among those who have created victims could keep us from creating more? What if, finally, someone learned something from prison?