Monday, May 16, 2011

Monopoly and Lincoln logs

After our traditional Easter Sunday lunch of ham and fixings this year, one of the kids dusted off an old Monopoly game, and we all played well into the evening, when one of the younger set emerged victorious.

The Monopoly board game was first released in England in 1904, just a short time before the invention of Lincoln Logs by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John.

The version of Monopoly that most of us are familiar with is the one that was released by Parker Brothers in 1935. Three of the 40 spaces on the board are Chance spaces, and one space is labeled “Go to Jail”. Included in the pile of Chance cards are a few that read, “Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”

(Today, $200 doesn’t sound like much money, but it represented about two months salary in America in 1935, and Governor Huey Long of Louisiana proposed a guaranteed annual salary of $2500, slightly more than $200 per month.)

In the United States, an awful lot of people have gone directly to jail without collecting their $200. In fact, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. At the end of 2007, the United States had less than 5% of the world’s population, but more than 23% of the world’s jail and prison population.

According to the most recent statistics, there were more than 2,000,000 Americans in prison or jail at the end of 2009. The prison population has quadrupled since 1980, in large part due to the “war on drugs”. 70% of the prison population would be considered “non-whites”, and almost all of them are male.

Both violent crime and property crime have been declining for the last 20 years. As a result, a large number of the folks who are in prison today in America today are non-violent criminals. You may conclude that we, as a society, are wasting a lot of money that could be put to better use elsewhere, and you’d be right.

As of last November, the prison system in Illinois was housing a record high 49,000 inmates, an increase of 3000 from the year before. Keeping all those folks behind bars isn’t cheap, and the state is currently $95,000,000 in arrears on its bills.

In addition to the cost of housing prisoners, the State of Illinois, through the Department of Human Services, has the responsibility of providing assistance to the children of the incarcerated. The most recent estimate of the number of children that are involved is 90,000. In times of economic crisis (like today) the Department of Human Services is often the department that feels the most pressure to cut expenses. The fact that the State of Illinois recently gave a $100,000,000 tax break to Motorola so that the company would keep its headquarters in Illinois doesn’t sit well with people concerned with social justice, and Motorola is not the only company that has received favorable treatment in recent months.

I don’t know anyone who is in prison, so why should I care if children of the incarcerated don’t get the help that they need?

There are two main reasons why us “middle class Americans” SHOULD be concerned:

1) one of the most important lessons that my dad taught me is to always do the right thing, even if it made you uncomfortable, and helping to provide assistance to innocent children is simply the right thing to do

2) MONEY. By providing counseling and support to children of the incarcerated, we can prevent or minimize the possibility that the children of prisoners will themselves become prisoners, which will save ALL of us a lot of money down the road.

Wishing and hoping for the best for the children of the incarcerated may make you feel good, but it doesn’t really help much. To TRULY make a difference, we (as a society) need to take ACTION.

I recently had the honor of traveling to Springfield, Illinois with 200 people from various congregations in the Chicago area. Officially, our group was called the Civic Action Network, and my local “gang of troublemakers” looked like the folks pictured below:

The Civic Action Network is part of the Community Renewal Society, an organization that was started in 1882. Its purpose is to inform, organize, and train both communities and individuals to advocate for social and economic justice. One of the current initiatives of the Community Renewal Society is a project called Children of the Incarcerated.

After arriving in Springfield, our group gathered for a rally at the AFL-CIO building, directly across the street from the Capitol, where we all picked up our bright orange “Civil Action Network” shirts, and proceeded to the Capitol building to meet with our “targeted list” of six legislators.

The dome of the Illinois State Capitol building reaches to a height of 361 feet, which makes it 74 feet higher than the dome of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Frankly, the grandeur of the building, and the thought of meeting with our duly elected officials, seemed to be a little intimidating, so I let the other members of the group do the presenting, and we ultimately were successful in meeting with 5 of the 6 legislators that we had planned to talk with.

As my gaze drifted upwards to the marvelous interior of the dome, the words that came to mind were the ones uttered by Paul Newman (aka attorney Frank Galvin) in the closing summation of the movie “The Verdict”:

“Today you are the law. You ARE the law. Not some book. Not some lawyers. Not a marble statue, or the trappings of the court. Those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are, in effect, a prayer, a fervent and a frightened prayer.”

Before we gathered again outside at the end d of the day by the statue of Abraham Lincoln before boarding our busses for the long ride home, all 200 of us came together for songs and prayers directly outside House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office on the third floor of the capitol.

One speech, in particular, reminded me of the power that all of us have to control both our own destiny, and the lives of those less fortunate than us.Over and over again, we were reminded that all of us are QUALIFIED to make a difference, even if we aren’t lawyers or teachers or well-paid lobbyists.

Did we make a difference?

I sense that we did, but the validation of our actions won’t become evident for a few weeks yet. More importantly, though, the trip to Springfield was a reminder of the fact that in a democracy like ours, the workings of the government depend on the contributions of INDIVIDUALS, however small, a fact that was confirmed by our Founding Fathers, who wrote a document that started out with, “We the people…”

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