What We Should Learn from “12 Years a Slave”

What We Should Learn from “12 Years a Slave” March 31, 2014

I finally watched the movie “12 Years a Slave.” It was very difficult to watch. Why? Not just the brutality portrayed but the fact that the men (and some women) who carried out the brutalities were human beings. (The movie is based on a book written by the protagonist, victim, and is generally considered true.) These things, like the holocaust and all that surrounded it, were done by people–not monsters from outer space or demons or viruses.

Here is the question with which such movies confront me: Have we, the human race in America (insert your own country if not the U.S.A.), changed so much that some of us would not do the same kinds of things portrayed in the movie? And are there things being done that are comparably brutal even now–that we are conveniently overlooking or justifying (as slave owners and defenders of slavery did in the 1840s)? Will people in our own country watch a movie about us, about some aspect of our social order that we take for granted as normal if not good, a century from now and shake their heads in disbelief and ask “How could they have been so brutal, so stupid, so inhuman, so evil?”

Well, let me suggest one such aspect that we ought even now to take just as seriously as abolitionists took slavery a century and a half ago.

I recently attended a consultation on the death penalty sponsored by the Constitution Project, a Washington, D.C. based think tank. We (about twenty-five evangelical leaders) not only heard about the horrors of capital punishment in America (e.g., 144 exonerations of persons on death row in 26 states since 1973) but also about the state of prisons life in America. Three people present were associated in some way with Christian prison ministries. One was a former state Attorney General.

The issue I am raising now, though, is not capital punishment but what is euphemistically called “mass incarceration” that includes horrendous numbers of young African-American men (and others) who are sentenced to lengthy terms in prison sinkholes (we were told about the conditions in some state prisons and they are simply shocking) for nothing worse than possession of controlled substances or being present when someone else committed a crime.

The average life expectancy in U.S. prisons (of persons sentenced to life imprisonment) is 51 years. Our prisons are by all accounts (with a few exceptions) brutal places where violence (sometimes by guards against inmates who have not done anything deserving of the violence) is common. So common is rape of young men (many of them transferred to adult prison from juvenile detention when they turn 18) is so common it’s simply a way of life. If you are a young man placed in a prison you can count on being raped–often repeatedly. And, of course, with that often comes AIDS.

Our prisons are horribly over crowded, filthy, violent, brutal places where we simply warehouse millions of (mostly) men the vast majority of who are poor and under educated and many of who are marginally retarded.

In some states in the U.S. people simply get lost in the prison system. Literally nobody knows which prison they are in or when they are supposed to be released. This is a horrendous secret that I discovered by accident. Of course, state officials will deny it, but people who have gone looking for specific prisoners have sometimes found it nearly impossible to find them. I’m talking about private investigators hired by families to find their incarcerated loved ones.

The U.S. prison system is one of those things I suspect movies will be made about a century from now and our descendents will watch and say “How could they have been so brutal, so stupid, so mean, so evil?” That’s what “12 Years a Slave” should do for us. It’s time we cleaned up our prison system and made it at the very least a safe place if not a relatively liveable place.


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