On Saturday my church is hosting a barbecue at the visitation center of our county jail.
I spoke often in public about this venture last year, but have been more quiet this time around. Some of that quietness has to do with the fact that I’ve been able to spend more time networking locally with people doing good work on re-entry and re-integration. I’ve been interested in making this a more local affair than it was even last year, and have been successful to that end.
Thinking seriously about the burden incarceration places upon families and loved ones is not something I ever planned for my life. And organizing events that might try to generate community awareness about the scope of incarceration’s effects was even lower on my list of likely projects I’d take up. I was dragged into caring when someone I grew to care about failed to re-enter society well, and so found himself back in jail. I visited the jail to see him, and felt what so many other families members will feel: that I, too, had done something wrong, simply by virtue of my association and affiliation with him.
This feeling is, I think, more pervasive across our society than we realize. Recent research suggests 45% of Americans have had an immediate family member spend at least one night in jail or prison.
That’s an astonishing number, from a fairly large sample (4041 adults). It’s reliable work, it seems to me, but it is perhaps best as a way in to verifying it within your own networks and community. I’ve raised the fact in a dozen or so conversations since I saw it three weeks or so ago when talking about the barbecue, and have had at least a third of those people acknowledge to me that either they themselves or a family member had been in jail.
Sociologists sometimes speak of ‘stigmas,’ and often use the term negatively: stigmas generate crime, as people react badly to being ostracized or shamed. Or so one prominent theory goes. On my view, there are certain stigmas that can be put in place justly: certain types of crimes should generate certain social restrictions, even for a long time afterward. Those restrictions are (probably) inherently stigmatizing. But they can be just all the same. Crime really deserves punishment; once that is accomplished, prudence demands caution.
But it’s harder to see how the ‘secondary stigmas’ that arise can be just—and easier to see how mercy might demand we attempt to mitigate them. Stigmas spread: they are contagious, in that they apply not only to the person who we name as the wrongdoer but to those who are close to them. In some ways, this spreading might be reasonable: if others enabled the crime, for instance, then we might think it reasonable that they be folded into the net of our recriminations. It is difficult to break the habit of imputing the crimes of children to their parents, at least in a lesser degree.
Yet it is also imperative to see how children are their own persons. There is a real individualism that arises within mercy, a recognition that we are own persons who make our own choices, and that in a deep way no one is responsible for them except ourselves. Moreover, who can possibly know as a general category which families are enablers, and which are secondary victims of their loved ones’ wrongdoings? Identifying the guilt of criminals means leaving the presumption of innocence for their families intact: we should presume that families want their loved ones around, and aren’t particularly interested in them engaging in criminal acts (versus getting caught).
At the same time, there’s something that seems impossibly useless about serving barbecue at the visitation center of the jail for overcoming such a problem. Such an act is symbolic: it is a material gesture, meant to bring the plight of such families into the open and to overcome it through integrating them into a meal. Symbolic acts are hard to justify to begin with: people want to know what material good such a meal will do. And when the spread of a stigma is already invisible and slow, the spread of that which would reverse it will invariably be the same.
This is particularly the case given the way I have approached the barbecue: we serve our city’s best
. I’ve had a principle of luxury at work in my thinking about it: if we are going to integrate these families into our own town, we should do so by meeting them with food that represents us at our very finest. (And having tasted it again yesterday, I can confirm that Guess Family BBQ really is some of the best I have ever had.
) That doesn’t come cheap—and I don’t know that I’ll be able to pay for it again next year, and I’m behind on paying for it this year. But I cannot escape the paradoxical thought that if we are really making what is in effect a symbolic gesture, we should maximally inflate the value of those symbols: we should give our absolute best, rather than the minimum required. When it comes to symbols, it is precisely not
only the thought that counts.
Or so I think about the barbecue, anyways. It’s not communion, so we don’t really have access to the treasures of a pre-existing stock of symbols and meanings that allow our meager “meal” to have the significance it does. But it is an invitation of a similar sort, to come and fellowship and be included within a communion of people who see the pain being endured, and extend the very best we have to offer in response. Whether such an effort ‘makes a difference’—who can say? That it is right to do, though, seems clear.