The Carceral State and Micah 6:8

I have worked as a psychiatrist for the last 15 years. I began witnessing the criminalization of mental illness and poverty very early on in my career, as my patients, many of whom had severe mental health conditions (such as schizophrenia), shared stories about being caged, beaten, and tortured during incarcerations or interactions with police. However, it was only when I started practicing at a public mental health clinic in Detroit in early 2019 when I began to fully appreciate the brutality of state violence, and how disproportionately it has affected people of color.

Last weekend, I facilitated a break-out session at Lake Erie Yearly Meeting (a gathering of my religious community, the Quakers) on the topic “The Carceral State and Micah 6:8.” Quakers like to get hung up on subtleties of language, so I’ll start with a note on the term “carceral state.” I prefer a few other phrases (notably “the punishment industry” and “the prison industrial complex”), but I went with “carceral state” here because it conveniently rhymed with “Micah 6:8,” the Bible verse around which I centered my talking points. Micah 6:8, by the way, is this little gem:

“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

I shared a few stories to illustrate the layers of complexity beneath each of these simple-but-not-easy things God has asked of me with regard to the carceral state. First, on God’s requirement to act justly, I spoke about a former patient of mine, Mr. S. I first met Mr. S this past February, just after he had been released from a 17-year incarceration for a sexual offense; he was street-homeless in the middle of winter, overwhelmed, with no one to help him. He was also severely traumatized by the brutality he had witnessed in prison, and so terrified of returning there, that he died (I suspect by suicide) within two months of his release.

I have challenged myself to draw on his story to remind myself of how not only I as a psychiatrist, but we as a society, have failed this man, and so many others. His criminal conviction was surely labelled “justice” by the system that imposed it. But is it really justice that he was caged for 17 years in a breeding ground for violence, only to be released to a cold and indifferent society that would not meet even his most basic needs for shelter and security? How might things have turned out differently for him if only a less punitive and more transformative sort of justice had been sought?

Moving on to God’s requirement that we love mercy, I launched into my own love story with Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son. For those unfamiliar, Native Son is the horrifyingly bleak story of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American Chicagoan who is rescued from destitute poverty by a wealthy real-estate mogul who hires him to be his driver. His new boss’s daughter Mary is a leftist college student whose obliviousness to her privilege and cruel microaggressions make for some cringeworthy moments despite her “good” intentions. On his first night of work, Mary asks Bigger to drive her to a party, where she gets sloppy-drunk, leaving Bigger to try to get her safely to her bed without waking anyone. To silence her, he accidentally suffocates her to death with a pillow, then panics and burns her body in the furnace. After a manhunt, during which Bigger goes on to commit even more violent acts of escalating desperation, he is found guilty of Mary’s murder and sentenced to death.

Notwithstanding Bigger’s apparent lack of empathy or remorse, the reader is led to sympathize with him; through Wright’s masterful prose, even Bigger’s most troubling actions are viewed through the context of the hopeless state of affairs into which he was born. Bigger’s only moment of warmth in the novel, of true human connection, comes after he is interviewed by an elderly Communist lawyer named Max who is trying to spare him the death penalty. Max’s efforts are doomed, of course, but he fights hard for Bigger, and it is clear Bigger appreciates his kindness. After their first interview, Bigger returns to his cell:

“The darkness round him lived, breathed. And he was in the midst of it, wanting again to let his body taste of that short respite of rest he had felt after talking with Max. He sat down on the cot; he had to grasp this thing. Why had Max asked him all those questions? He knew that Max was seeking facts to tell the judge; but in Max’s asking of those questions he had felt a recognition of his life, of his feelings, of his person that he had never encountered before. What was this?…He felt as though he had been caught off his guard. But this, this—confidence? He had no right to be proud; yet he had spoken to Max as a man who had something. He had told Max that he did not want religion, that he had not stayed in his place. He had no right to feel that, no right to forget that he was to die, that he was black, a murderer; he had no right to forget that, not even for a second. Yet he had.”

When I first read Native Son several years ago, I read those words as a psychiatrist, not as a Quaker. I remember seeing them as, quite simply, a testament to the power of empathy, and vowed to interview each and every one of my patients with a similar intentional recognition of their dignity as human beings. Today I have different terms for that same concept: the Light Within, the Inner Light, that of God within you, that of God within me. Whatever it is, when we honor its sacredness, we love mercy.

When someone has committed a wrongful act, we must keep working our way backward to truly understand how that person’s circumstances led them to commit harm, and how those circumstances must be addressed in order to usher in true healing for everyone involved. When we take it a step further and start walking humbly, we can recognize how our own actions—whether intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious—have contributed to that person’s circumstances. We may sit with the uncomfortable knowledge that many of us are where we are today because the system has been rigged in our favor our entire lives. And then, armed with that recognition, we must ask God what he requires of us now.

As I have delved deeper into Quaker faith and practice over the last two years, my perspective has evolved. It is my hope it will evolve more still as I continue to walk humbly with God. During periods of frenzied work and expectant silence alike, may each of us remain open to following where the spirit leads us.