Prison numbers

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Mathematics has a term for single causes that multiply into innumerable effects - geometric progression.

The TV show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," where a correctly answered question can double the prize money, has taught more about geometric progression than any classroom.

Think of lemmings. One mating pair propagates so many offspring so quickly they exhaust their food supply.

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Or think about the rate of incarceration in the United States, especially mandatory sentencing laws to fight crime. For two decades now the rising number of inmates has become a lemming-like reality.

I wrote my first prison article for the Monitor in 1980. State and federal prison officials shook their heads in disbelief at the number of people behind bars - 300,000. That figure seems quaint today. More than 2,000,000 men and women, (mostly men, disproportionately black) are behind bars.

My prison coverage for the Monitor took me to more than two dozen prisons and another half-dozen jails. Overcrowding in every state but Minnesota was a given.

Jane Lampman's article (page 15) on prison ministries jolts my conscience. If we are our brother's keeper, we have been doing a lot of keeping.

Math can't measure the human scale of suffering - whether felons incarcerated or the individuals they victimized. So I think of two friends, inmates. One I didn't visit enough. He died behind bars. The other, a childhood friend, I never visited, but should have.

Ask yourself: Do you know anyone doing time? Visit or write them. If you don't, find some way to connect with a prison ministries outreach. Doing so won't solve prison math in the US.

But it has to be part of the human solution to the problem.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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