MEEKS: Opening a new door

January 15, 2014 

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

-- Fyodor Dostoevsky

Someone told me the other day their thoughts about prisoners is that that prisoners should be locked up and forgotten. Actually, this is not a very unusual belief, it is more than likely representative of how many folks think about prisoners. But there is a problem with this notion. The folks that have gone to prison are not going to stay there forever and they are not going away. In many cases they are there as a result of many complicated events that have helped to shape their lives.

Along with this is the reality that our society has created a prison industrial complex and many young people, mostly black males, have been designated as disposable and are being used to make sure the prison industry thrives. While it is very easy to gather an understanding about the situation that exists at the present time in America around this issue, it is very helpful for anyone who is not clear about the dynamics at the present time to take a look at Michelle Alexander’s important work on this subject in her book “The New Jim Crow.”

While our prisons, jails and death rows are being populated with young men of color and the poor, we need to ask many more honest questions about the reasons for their behavior. As we move into 2014, it is important to hope and work toward finding ways to make it clear that we cannot afford prison business as usual. The folks who are there have been accused of breaking the law and regardless of their behavior, it does not make them less than human. When we relegate people to be less than human, we hurt ourselves more than anyone else.

Though most of us have not broken any laws, it is crucial to find ways to see beyond the acts that might have caused someone to have to go to jail. It is important to see past those acts to their humanity. This is a challenge at times, but it is one that needs to be embraced. I am working to do that in a more intentional way than I have ever done before. I am going for my first time to visit someone who is on death row on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I am very happy to have this opportunity to grow. I am opening a new door for myself and I hope that a new door will open for the person I will visit. I have been in several Georgia prisons as a professor, but never simply as a person who is trying to offer and to receive hospitality.

It occurs to me that it is a blessing that a person on death row would be willing to take a chance on me or anyone for that matter. It is a gift to have someone open his heart up to the possibility of a friendship and be willing to invest the energy and effort that goes with developing a friendship with a stranger. I am already grateful for this first gift of hospitality. Personally, this step represents finding another way to confirm the absolute certainty that I have about all of us being connected -- and the necessity that we have to reach out to one another.

Compassion knows no boundaries. Though our circumstances may vary in many ways, there is the simple indisputable truth that not one of us is better than another. We construct our hierarchies that are designed to bear witness to whatever illusions of superiority and inferiority we wish to invent -- but they exists in our minds only.

My hope is that this small act of hospitality will create new connections for healing and wholeness.

This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at

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