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Posts Tagged ‘Illinois’

WBEZ, the local public radio station here in Chicago, has been doing some noteworthy investigative reporting on the pathetic state of Illinois prisons — overcrowded facilities, broken windows, insect infestations. Worst of all, hundreds upon hundreds of men sitting in their cells, doing nothing productive (or rehabilitative) with their time.

The WBEZ coverage started in earnest earlier this year when Governor Pat Quinn refused to allow reporter Rob Wildeboer to view the conditions inside state prisons. After months of petitioning, Quinn finally relented, but only after WBEZ threatened him and the Department of Corrections with a lawsuit.

The resulting tour of the Vienna state prison in southern Illinois provides some insightful commentary and observations on the prison business in general. Though focused on Illinois, WBEZ’s coverage has shone a light on some of the systemic problems facing many prison systems around the nation: Are they simply holding bins for people we’ve given up on (at the cost of millions of dollars), or should prisons be working to transform and rehabilitate their occupants for more productive lives after incarceration?

One of the more compelling voices in the coverage came from Dean Harper, who retired from his job as a corrections officer at Vienna in 1991. He recalled things being quite different at the prison 25 years ago. Says WBEZ’s Wildeboer:

When Harper worked at the prison he would help the inmates get jobs around town: picking apples, bailing hay, doing construction and they were paid minimum wage.

“And they sent part of that home and then kept part and then people had a different look as far as what inmates really was,” Harper said. “They’re human too.”

…. In those days, Harper says the prison offered college classes and Vienna residents would also enroll and go to the prison and sit in classes next to inmates.

Today little is done at Vienna to actually improve its prisoners’ lives. Instead, they sit around in delapidated conditions at tax-payer expense, mostly doing nothing — unless watching television is considered a rehabilitative practice.

Harper believes the mentality of those running the prison system is backward today. In what might be the most prophetic comment of the report, Harper says, “When you take away a person’s ability to do good because they have done bad, what do you leave them?”

I believe that’s a question worth pondering, especially in light of God’s heart for the prisoner and the New Testament admonition to “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself” (Heb. 13:3). A good place to start might be to read a book such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which examines the mass incarceration of people of color in America and the root causes for this phenomenon. Or you might want to get involved with a prison ministry such as Prison Fellowship, or the Philadelphia-based Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project, which is led by my friend Dr. Harold Dean Trulear.

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Happy New Year, everyone! Dana asked me yesterday, “When are you going to update your blog?” And I suddenly felt convicted. It’s been hard for me to regroup from the holiday break. Plus, I’m not sure I have much to say just yet; still searching for my 2009 voice, I guess.

Maybe another reason I’ve avoided blogging is that I’m so darned embarrassed to live in Illinois right now. After Governor Blagojevich’s arrest and tragic downfall, I thought the guy would keep a low profile and not stir up anymore trouble. Alas, Blago’s ego wouldn’t allow him to keep still. And so, last week he goes and names Roland Burris, a veteran African American politician, to fill Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. You all know the rest.

Now, this week we have the fiasco of Mr. Burris going to Washington for the swearing-in ceremony and being turned away. We’ve got black politicians and church leaders in Illinois declaring that Burris has a legal right to the seat and should be allowed to fill the vacancy because there are currently no African Americans in the Senate. We’ve got President-elect Obama, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, Senator Harry Reid, and an assortment of other folks saying Burris should not be allowed to join the Senate because of the cloud of corruption hanging over Blagojevich’s governorship. And on and on it goes.

I need therapy, folks. As a lifelong Illinoisian (with a brief sojourn to Florida), I’m feeling lots of shame these days. What in the world is going on with my state?

What’s really sad is the way Blagojevich is brazenly playing the race card in this situation to apparently distract attention from his own sorry plight and curry favor with African Americans, who may be his last source of support. And what’s even sadder is the way some African American leaders, both from the political and church arenas, have played along with Blago’s desperate ploy. Looking especially bad in this whole mess is Roland Burris, who once seemed like a wise and respectable public servant. Why on earth would he go along with Blagojevich’s plan, knowing that it would lead to the very debacle we’re seeing right now in Springfield and Washington?

Ironically, the last power play for this particular Senate seat also involved a brazen dealing of the race card. Remember back in 2004 when Illinois Republicans recruited Alan Keyes, an outspoken African American conservative from Maryland, to come to the Land of Lincoln and battle Barack Obama for that U.S. Senate seat? I never thought I’d see such an outrageous display of racial politics in Illinois again—until now.

So, what do you think? As you might expect, there are plenty of interesting commentaries floating around the blogosphere and other media. Monroe Anderson, at EbonyJet.com, sarcastically quips, “[A]pparently, the [Senate] seat that once belonged to the president-elect now commands exclusive dibs from black pols in Illinois, period. No whites need apply. Asians or Hispanics shouldn’t bother either.” In an interview with NPR, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic also argues that race shouldn’t matter in the Burris case. And Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page offers an insightful overview of the current saga in all its racialized messiness.

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It was May of 1988 and I recited this poem before an auditorium full of teachers, parents, and my graduating classmates:

‘Twas The Night Before Jesus Came
Author Unknown 

‘Twas the night before Jesus came and all through the house
Not a creature was praying, not one in the house
Their Bibles were lain on the shelf without care
In hopes that Jesus would not come there. 

The children were dressing to crawl into bed.
Not once ever kneeling or bowing a head.
And Mom in her rocker with baby on her lap
Was watching the Late Show while I took a nap.

When out of the East there arose such a clatter.
I sprang to my feet to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash!

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But angels proclaiming that Jesus was here.
With a light like the sun sending forth a bright ray
I knew in a moment this must be THE DAY! 

The light of His face made me cover my head
It was Jesus! returning just like He had said.
And though I possessed worldly wisdom and wealth,
I cried when I saw Him in spite of myself. 

In the Book of Life which He held in His hand
Was written the name of every saved man.
He spoke not a word as He searched for my name;
When He said “it’s not here” my head hung in shame. 

The people whose names had been written with love
He gathered to take to His Father above.
With those who were ready He rose without a sound.
While all the rest were left standing around. 

I fell to my knees, but it was too late;
I had waited too long and thus sealed my fate.
I stood and I cried as they rose out of sight;
Oh, if only I had been ready tonight. 

In the words of this poem the meaning is clear;
The coming of Jesus is drawing near.
There’s only one life and when comes the last call
We’ll find that the Bible was true after all!

I was one of the student speakers at the 1988 baccalaureate service at Auburn High School in Rockford, Illinois. One of the other scheduled speakers unexpectedly couldn’t make it to the service, so I ended up going last. I started my speech by congratulating the Class of ’88 (full disclosure: I should’ve graduated in ’87 but was held back in the fourth grade). Then I shared a little about my faith in God, performed an updated version of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and concluded with a reading of “Twas the Night Before Jesus Came.” It was well received, and I recall many people were moved by the service. But 20 years later, I’m having second thoughts.  

As I reviewed “Twas the Night Before Jesus Came” the other day, in preparation for a reading at a work Christmas program, I was struck by how harsh it must’ve sounded to some of the people in that Auburn High audience back in ’88. Thinking back on that event, I honestly don’t think I recited it with a spirit of judgment or condemnation; I simply wanted to impress upon my classmates and teachers our need for salvation through Jesus Christ.

In retrospect, if I had it to do over, I don’t think I’d use that poem. Instead, I think I’d want to share something that spoke more of the love, mercy, and grace of Jesus Christ. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. Or perhaps it’s just that I see more clearly my own desperate need of God’s mercy and grace. In any case, rather than the “fire and brimstone” treatment, I’d like to leave folks with a glimpse of God’s great love.

Certainly, “Twas the Night Before Jesus Came” is a clever little piece, playing off of Clement Moore’s classic story. Jesus is coming again someday, and the poem is a jarring reminder to get ourselves ready. Still, I wonder if there might’ve been a better way for me to share my passion that night. Many of the people in the auditorium that evening didn’t so much need to hear about the Second Coming of Christ as much as they needed to hear about his First Coming—how God loved us so much that he humbled himself to become a man so that he might save us from our sins and give us new life.

On this Christmas Eve, as I think about God’s wonderful gift to us, I pray that we’ll all experience his love and grace anew. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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It’s not a great time to be from Illinois. Yesterday a friend of mine, a native Chicagoan who now lives in New Jersey, IM’d me with this: “Geez, what’s wrong with your politicians out there?” She seemed to happily forget that she, too, is from the Land of Lincoln (and Blagojevich).

Anyway, just as I felt proud to be an American on Nov. 4, I’ve been feeling embarrassed about being an Illinoisan today. What in the world is going on with a state that has not one but two consecutive governors who are immersed in corruption? And to think that, in an earlier post, I embraced the idea of extending grace to former Governor George Ryan for his transgressions. (Can you imagine what Ryan must be feeling right now in the wake of these revelations? Probably doesn’t exactly bolster his chances for an early release.)   

Governor Rod Blagojevich’s alleged actions have left everyone feeling either sad, mad, or stunned. Why on earth would someone who has been the subject of Federal investigations for the past five years attempt to “sell” a U.S. Senate seat, among other things? The astonishment and hyperbole that’s been used to describe this latest scandal, from the mouths of Federal investigators who have seen plenty of corruption, speaks to the tragic and unfathomable nature of these events.

Not only do Blagojevich’s alleged actions speak of unparalleled hubris, one has to think that, given the cloud of suspicion that he’s been under for a long time, he must be suffering from some form of mental illness. (Of course, sin is a mental illness that we all contend with daily, right?)

My first reaction was to call the guy a “total idiot.” How could he be so stupid, greedy, and vindictive? This bum needs to resign—or be impeached—sooner rather than later. Lock up he and his “pay to play” political cohorts. But then I saw video of his wife and two young daughters walking out of their home on the news, and I was reminded of his humanity. And I thought, Lord, have mercy on this man and his family. 

Then I started to think about my own instances of actions that border on unethical at best and illegal at worst. Aren’t we all engaged in some manner of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” behavior from time to time—in the workplace, in our personal relationships, in our finances? Which led me to think, Lord, have mercy on me.

I haven’t had time to read many commentaries on this scandal yet, but I did find Eric Easter’s comments over at EbonyJet.com quite challenging. Easter asks the question, “Are we all corrupt?” And suggests that there may be a thin line between what Blagojevich was doing and stuff that we do each day.

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I’m always a little intrigued by how easy it is for us humans to instinctively demand justice, yet how deep we have to dig in order to muster up any inclination toward mercy or forgiveness. What’s up with that? I understand that God has wired us with that desire for righteousness, to see “the crooked made straight and the rough places plain” (Isa. 40:4). But I also know how much trouble we get into when we presume to dispense judgment without mercy. Wouldn’t it be something if, instead of righteous indignation, our first instinct was one of grace and mercy? What would that look like?

I say all this because I’ve been fascinated by the response to a situation here in Illinois. Many of you probably know that our former governor George Ryan was sentenced to a six-year prison term for a variety of corruption charges that stem from his tenure as secretary of state. Probably the most notable and tragic result of Ryan’s crimes were the deaths of the six children of Scott and Janet Willis, who were killed in a fiery traffic accident caused by a trucker who obtained his driver’s license illegally from one of Ryan’s secretary of state offices. Consequently, many people view Ryan as an accomplice to murder.

Dick Durbin, one of our U.S. senators, recently sent a letter to President Bush requesting that Ryan’s prison sentence be commuted to the one year he has served already. (Coincidentally, Durbin is a Democrat and Ryan is a Republican.) In a truly gracious display that, unfortunately, has been drowned out by the cynical cries of favoritism and “politics as usual,” Durbin writes that the 74-year-old Ryan “has lost his state pension benefits and a commutation will not restore them. He would emerge from prison facing economic uncertainty at an advanced stage of his life.” He also notes that Ryan’s wife, Lura Lynn, is in declining health and would benefit from her husband’s presence. Durbin continues:

“For those who would argue that a commutation makes light of his crimes, it is clear that he has already paid a significant price and will continue to do so as long as he lives. Justice is a sword that should be tempered with compassion. Further imprisonment will not, in my opinion, serve the ends of justice.”

For this, Durbin has taken a major lashing from the public. On the Chicago Tribune website, one commenter opined, “Whatever good opinion I have had of Senator Durbin has just diminished to zero. He has just added to the belief that politicians stick together no matter what the crime. It is time that they not be considered untouchable where justice is concerned.” Responding to the criticism, Durbin said he had been “raised in a tradition of redemption” and that he believed Ryan has already paid a great price.

However, the overwhelming majority of folks seem adamant that Ryan should not be given any special treatment. Again on the Tribune site, in a survey that asks: “Should President Bush set Gov. George Ryan free?,” out of 1,977 respondents (when I last checked), a whopping 1,617 said “No,” while only 360 folks said “Yes.” That’s 82% whose natural and abiding impulse is to go by the letter of the law versus 18% who think the old guy has suffered enough.

Ironically, Gov. George Ryan’s other great controversial act was the moratorium he placed on Illinois’s death penalty because of several dubious cases where individuals were unfairly tried. Then, before leaving office in 2003, Ryan commuted the death sentences of every inmate on Illinois’ Death Row—167 in all—to life in prison.

What do you think? What’s the proper balance between mercy and justice? Would commuting Gov. Ryan’s sentence send the wrong message, or would it send exactly the kind of message our society needs to witness more of—one of compassion, forgiveness, and grace?

In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey writes:

Because it goes against human nature, forgiveness must be taught and practiced, as one would practice any difficult craft. “Forgiveness is not just an occasional act: it is a permanent attitude,” said Martin Luther King Jr. What greater gift could Christians give to the world than the forming of a culture that upholds grace and forgiveness?

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