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Incarceration and the City

Book Club Examines the Plight of the Prisoner

As part of Max Hunter’s work at the Seattle Pacific University John Perkins Center, he has helped organize a book club of SPU faculty and staff members and other Seattleites to read and discuss issues of race and reconciliation. Over the summer of 2010, the book club discussed The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights litigator and associate professor at the Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

When people who have finished serving time in prison re-enter life on the outside — often in the heart of America’s cities — they may not be able to vote, apply for food stamps, live in public housing, or receive government financial aid for education, depending upon the state in which they live. Indeed, says Alexander in her 2010 book, they may be rendered "permanently unemployable in the legal job market," within a system that "seems designed to send people right back to prison." Furthermore, she argues, these penalties disproportionately affect ethnic minority communities, especially African- American men.

This January, the Perkins Center partnered with The Bush School, Starbucks, Seattle Public Schools, the Clowes Center at the University of Washington, and Mt. Zion Baptist Church to bring Alexander to Seattle for a series of lectures to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"Professor Alexander’s book brings together scholarly and practical work," says Tali Hairston, director of the Perkins Center. "When I read it, I realized that as the church we needed to wrestle with this issue or we would be guilty of ignoring the prisoner, which we are taught not to do in Scripture."

"Jesus was so concerned about prisoners and the oppressed," echoes Kerry Dearborn, SPU professor of theological studies and participant in the summer book club. She used the book as a textbook in her "Introduction to Christian Reconciliation" course in Autumn 2010. "We could be blind and indifferent to the larger harsh realities that some people experience every day of their lives. But as Christians, this isn’t a viable option for us."