In what many consider Jesus’ “inauguration” speech early in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims to his fellow hometown faithful that he has been anointed by the Lord “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus offered a parable in the 25th chapter of Matthew, which asserted that God is mysteriously but truly present among the “least, last, lost, and lonely,” naming specifically those in prison.
The proposed jail expansion in our county is far more than a public safety or political issue. It is a spiritual issue.
We clergy have begun research to better understand the motivation for such an expansion, and we are of mixed opinion as to whether it is truly necessary for the well-being of our citizens.
We are united, however, in expressing our lament at the prospect of this expansion, and of course the perceived need that drives it.
According to the Vera Institute, which tracks criminal justice statistics, the Haywood County population has grown 8.4% between 2000 and 2018, but our incarceration rate has swelled by 133% over the same period.
Sheriff Christopher has reported that 3,900 individuals, or about 3.5% of our citizens, have been through the jail in 2019, as reported in Smoky Mountain News.
We recognize that on one level, this issue is extremely complex and related to growing gaps in socio-economic strata, the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs, the disintegration of kinship networks, and “drugs in our midst” including legal, but often misused, drugs like alcohol and opioids and illicit ones like methamphetamine.
Haywood County has a track record of compassion, too. The LEAD program, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion which helps those connect those battling substance use disorders with treatment instead of jail time for non-violent offenses, is an important shift.
Similarly, the creation of the Haywood Pathways Center is a shining example of that, but there is so much more opportunity.
Even with Pathways in place, a stunning 70% of released inmates have no homes to which they can return. We know that the churches have a clear vocation to “stand in the breach” by ministering to those in jail, their families, and also supporting former detainees upon their release.
As both citizens and clergy, we hope that the decision makers in Haywood County, those whom the people elect, can allot resources to address some of the underlying causes of incarceration, especially increasing funds for mental health and substance abuse treatment that can “meet people where they are.”
It saddens us that the Behavioral Health Urgent Care at Balsam Center closed in April. Reopening it would cost only a small fraction of the proposed jail expansion budget.
We believe that God works through our prayers, expands our hearts and minds, and empowers our hands to minister to those in greatest need. We encourage Christians of Haywood County to consider prayerfully the issues brought forth here and imagine what you as an individual or church might do to help address these needs. In closing, we offer this prayer from The Book of Common Prayer.
Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal:
• Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment.
• Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future.
• When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice.
• Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous.
• And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy’s sake. Amen.
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer, Rector, Grace Church in the Mountains, Episcopal
The Rev. Dr. Court Greene, Senior Pastor, Canton First Baptist Church
The Rev. Peter Constantian, Pastor, Long’s & Cruso United Methodist Churches
The Rev. Riley Covin, Retired Pastor, Presbyterian Church USA
The Rev. Sharon Davis, Pastor, Faith & Francis Cove United Methodist Churches
The Rev. Dr. Robert Prince, Lead Pastor, First Baptist Church of Waynesville
The Rev. Keith Turman, Senior Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Waynesville
The Rev. Todd Donatelli, Interim Rector, St. Andrew’s Episcopal, Canton