Juvenile Justice and Jesus
We Must Do Better

Eric Metaxas
July 8, 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Three years ago, Michael McIntosh went to visit his son, a juvenile offender at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility near Jackson, Mississippi. When he arrived he was told that his son, Mike, wasn't there.

Since Mike hadn't been released from custody, something was very wrong. It took six weeks and a tip from a prison nurse to find Mike, who was in a hospital in Greenwood several hours from Jackson. It's as if prison officials were trying to hide Mike.

And for good reason: Mike "could barely move, let alone sit up." He couldn't see or talk; he had a "baseball-size knot on the back of his head;" and he was covered in cuts, bruises and stab wounds.

As a result of his injuries, Mike sustained brain damage that left his cognitive abilities resembling that of a two-year-old. Mike suffered these injuries as the result of a "youth melee" at the facility, and "no one bothered to tell his father."

Again, for good reason: because according to a Department of Justice report, "A female guard had 'endorsed the disturbance by allowing inmates into an authorized cell to fight.'" What's more, "The guard's involvement wasn't uncommon. Investigations showed that guards frequently instigated or incited youth-on-youth violence. Often, they were the perpetrators."

Eventually, the state entered into an agreement with Justice to reform conditions at Walnut Grove. In approving the settlement, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves cited a pattern of "deliberate indifference" to what he characterized as "a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions."

A year after this settlement, Mississippi faces another lawsuit over prison conditions: in May, the ACLU sued the state on behalf of residents at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility. The ACLU alleges that conditions at the facility have "cost many prisoners their health, and their limbs, their eyesight, and even their lives."

The complaint alleges that "solitary confinement zones house dozens of seriously mentally ill prisoners who are locked down in filthy cells for days, weeks, or even years at a time." The plaintiffs say that "rapes, stabbings, beatings, and … acts of violence are rampant."

It all sounds depressingly familiar. Let's be clear: Mississippi is by no means unique. If, as Dostoevsky wrote, "the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons," then we are a nation of barbarians.

We lock up a far greater percentage of our people than any other nation. And once they're behind bars, our treatment of them ranges from, at best, benign neglect to violations of human dignity that, as Justice Anthony Kennedy has written, have "no place in civilized society."

These violations persist because the vast majority of Americans practice their own brand of "deliberate indifference" when it comes to the treatment of prisoners.

But we don't have that option. Jesus made it clear that deliberate indifference to their plight puts our souls at risk. In addition, if we remain silent in the face of these offenses against human dignity, then we will deserve it when people tune us out when we talk about matters like religious freedom and marriage. We will be just another special interest in a nation full of them.