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In contrast to the ideals of individual freedom and liberty that are central to its national identity, the United States has the dubious distinction of having the largest prison population in the world. Driven in large part by mandatory sentencing and the “War on Drugs,” approximately 2.4 million women and men, slightly under 1% of the entire population, faces confinement of some degree. Over the past 40 years the prison population has grown by over four hundred percent, and the human cost has been grievous. The toll has been especially heavy on the country’s non-white populations as prison populations are disproportionately comprised of people of color. Indeed legal scholar Michelle Alexander has gone so far as to call today’s prisons “The New Jim Crow” in her best selling book of the same name, arguing that America’s prisons have become a powerful institution for racial subjugation today.
Behind prison walls, prisoners often face inadequate living conditions, sub-par medical and mental health care, little access to means of education, and a general lack of resources. Inadequate living conditions have been further exacerbated by the growth of private prisons who, in the interest of profit margins and satisfying investors, work to cut costs where possible and to keep prison beds full. Once released, prisoners are often offered sparse resources for re-entry into society, if any at all. More often than not they face the same structural obstacles that steered them to prison in the first place. Recidivism is common, which serves the interest of many prison operators but continual extras a heavy toll on communities across the country.
A powerful grassroots effort has made prison reform one of the nation’s central social justice issues today in response to these structural transgressions. One example of this movement is the Prison and After Committee at St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church in downtown Boston, and their simply-titled but powerful “Monday Nights” program. Every Monday night, volunteers of the parish’s Prison and After Committee welcome anywhere from fifteen to thirty recently released men, many of which reside in local halfway houses as part of their release.For the first hour the gathering splits into two or three volunteer-facilitated support groups to allow the men to talk about the triumphs and struggles of re-entry. Afterward everyone gathers for announcements, grace, and to break bread with a communal meal prepared by the volunteers. The men who partake in this program frequently reiterate how important and helpful the group is to them. The “Monday Nights” program stands as a testament to how simple acts can lead to big change, even in the face of the many challenges of America’s prison industrial complex.