Everyday of Arrupe Week 2017, we'll play a song over the loudspeaker that connects to our theme of Mass Incarceration. Below you can find a link to each song, along with a brief explanation of why we chose it. Enjoy!
Monday, March 20: "Folsom Prison Blues (Live)," Johnny Cash
For many people, this is the first song that comes to mind when thinking of music about prisons. Cash was inspired to write “Folsom Prison Blues” by a crime noir movie, but he grounded the lyrics with a stark, realistic narrative of poverty and irreversible mistakes. In 1968 he performed the song at Folsom Prison itself to an audience of inmates. This, and several other prison concerts, inspired Cash to become an advocate for prisoner’s rights later in his career. We chose to open Arrupe Week 2017 with “Folsom Prison Blues” because it puts us in the shoes of the people we hope to inspire empathy for: the prisoner, the inmate, serving his or her time locked away from the world, but still dreaming of redemption – and as worthy of it as any of us. This is a challenging idea to accept, especially when it comes to violent offenders (Cash’s narrator, who “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” certainly fits the bill). But this is also the challenge of Christ: the radical notion that, in God’s eyes, we can all be forgiven, and offered a second chance. Throughout this week, we hope to examine how our society has both met and failed this challenge.
Tuesday, March 21: "Chain Gang," Sam Cooke
Cooke’s song is a simple expression of sympathy, putting himself – and the listener – in the shoes of the members of a chain gang – a group of prisoners chained together to perform menial or physically challenging work as a punishment. The song was allegedly inspired by a chance encounter Cooke had with an actual chain gang while on tour. Before the practice ended in 1955, these shackled labor units were common, especially in the American South. A passing motorist seeing a group of men (likely black, in the Jim Crow South) chained and laboring under the hot sun may have sparked associations with slavery. This isn’t far from the truth: chain gangs, while a form of involuntary servitude, were legal under the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except as a punishment for crime. To this day, prisons exploit this provision in the amendment to press inmates in labor. This could be grueling physical work (in the late Nineties, several states actually reinstituted the use of chain gangs, for instance) or, as in many for-profit prisons, using prisoners as a source of free manufacturing. While the form of work may have changed since Sam Cooke’s time, across the country prisoners still toil, hoping for some relief and perhaps, one day, freedom.
For more information on this phenomenon, we highly recommend that you watch 13th, a 2016 Netflix documentary about the prison system.
Wednesday, March 22: "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," Vicki Lawrence
A Southern Gothic tale of betrayal and murder in the backwoods of Georgia, this song also hints at deeper, structural issues. Using drama and dark humor, Lawrence shows what happens when the justice system is more concerned with expediency than actual justice: innocent people are condemned to long sentences, and sometimes killed. Organizations like the Innocence Project work tirelessly to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted, but even then exonerees spend on average fourteen years of their life in prison. And while there is no hard number on how many innocent people have received the death penalty, a 2014 study found that about 4% of all people sentenced to die are innocent. Lawrence’s song may use dramatic imagery, but it nods to a sobering reality.
Thursday, March 23: "Straight Time," Bruce Springsteen
It wouldn’t be Arrupe Week at Prep without The Boss weighing in! In this stark track, Springsteen’s narrator, Charlie, is a man struggling to adjust to life outside of prison, but realizing that he’s been irrevocably impacted by his time in prison and is, in a sense, still trapped. Despite having a family, a job, and his freedom, Charlie feels himself pulled towards the comforting familiarity of prison life. “Seems you can’t get any more than half free,” Charlie laments, shortly before sawing the barrel off of a shotgun in preparation for a robbery. Like many of Springsteen’s everyman characters, Charlie’s experiences are all too real. Many former prisoners struggle to find work (or at least a job that will help them escape poverty) due to the stigma of being an ex-con, and have a difficult time adjusting to normal life after the often traumatic experience of prison. These are among the reasons that recidivism rates are so high in the US. Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested; more than half (56.7 percent) of those rearrested were arrested by the end of their first year on the outside (Bureau of Justice Statistics). For this reason, programs like Prep’s Mission Drive partner Homeboy Industries have made it their mission to help formerly incarcerated individuals transition into healthy, successful lives after prison.
Friday, March 24: "Freedom Now," Tracy Chapman
While Chapman wrote this song specifically about Nelson Mandela, its lyrics can easily apply to the human spirit in general, and its fight for dignity even in the most undignified conditions. Incarceration can often be a sort of death – spiritual, if not literal – for those who experience it; but others, given the right opportunities, can emerge from prison into a new life. It requires programs focused on healing and rehabilitation; it requires a society willing to give them a second chance; and it requires a belief in one’s own human dignity, in the hope that we all have to redemption and forgiveness. As the final song of Arrupe Week 2017, this is the message we hope to leave the Prep community with: our goal should always be freedom. As Pope Francis himself has said (numerous times) the purpose of a criminal justice system should be both to keep us safe and to rehabilitate offenders so that they can learn, heal the harm that they have caused, and become contributing members of society. Our faith teaches us that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness; God offers us a second chance, and challenges us to do the same for others. We hope that Arrupe Week 2017 has helped you to reflect on how mercy and forgiveness are needed in our society. Together, we can imagine – and work for – a criminal justice system that is truly just.