“Love your neighbor”: Prof. Bradley offers powerful solutions to the “incarceration nation”


Photo of Bradley by Hope Brusstar

During his lecture, Bradley discussed changes and trends to incarceration in the U.S. and offered some solutions to the ongoing problem.

Hope Brusstar, Editor-In-Chief

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. On Thursday, Feb. 7, Prof. Anthony Bradley visited UNO to discuss some of his solutions to the problem.

“How many people are incarcerated?” Bradley asked audience members that afternoon. He informed them that 2.3 million people are currently in U.S. prisons. Add those under probation, and the number jumps to about seven million.

“We are incarceration nation,” said Bradley, a professor of theology at The King’s College.

Between 1959 and 1979, street crime in the U.S. quadrupled, and between 1963 and 1974, homicides doubled and robberies tripled.

Between the early 70s and mid 90s, the U.S. saw incarceration rates jump. But about 88 percent of prisoners are in state prisons, not federal prisons, Bradley pointed out. Legislation affecting incarceration rates typically happens at the state level.

Why are prisons so full? A myriad of reasons exist. Those who are in prison just for drug crimes make up only about 1.4 percent of the prison population.

“We have to think of all the variables, not just one of them,” he remarked.

One issue, noted Bradley, is that most people are unaware of the many activities which qualify as federal crimes.

“I’ve got bad news for you. Everybody in here is a criminal,” he said. “Over the last week, you’ve broken at least 20 [federal laws].”

According to Title 21 of the Federal Code of Regulations, “To sell onion rings resembling normal onion rings but made from diced onions” without informing the customer of the difference is a federal crime. @CrimeADay on Twitter regularly posts about more federal crimes such as this, and Bradley directed the audience to it for more examples.

“Why is it that some of us end up in jail while others do not?” Bradley asked. “If you look at the history of incarceration in this country, it’s way worse than race.” Although race plays a big part, class differences make up the primary divide, especially in recent years. The percentage of lower-class white people who are incarcerated has increased greatly, due in part to the opioid crisis. In general, the people who end up in prison are disproportionately poor, are not well educated and/or have mental health issues.

Yet another issue contributing to the incarceration rate: “There are all sorts of incentives for a parish to keep their rate up,” Bradley said. Some police departments get more money when they arrest more people. Meanwhile, “Prosecutors have way too much power,” he stated. 94 percent of charges end with a plea bargain and therefore never make it to a fair trial. These plea bargains are officiated by prosecutors. Meanwhile, “Public defenders are understaffed, underpaid, and usually tired,” said Bradley.

Also, mandatory minimums require certain offenses to receive a minimum sentence that is predetermined by legislature, not by the judicial system. “It takes away the judge’s discretion,” commented one student in the audience.

Finally, Bradley mentioned the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“Schools are feeding kids into the juvenile system,” he said. “Atlanta now has its own police force in the public schools.” He referenced an incident in 2016 where a 14-year-old eighth grader named Ryan Turk stole some milk at lunch. He didn’t get detention. He went to jail.

Bradley strongly urges anyone and everyone to get directly involved in any way possible.That afternoon, he told the audience “I hope some of you become cops.”

Bradley also thinks Americans need to change their perspective. “We have not only a policy problem but a perception problem as people. … Is the system treating people as humans?”  He remarked that when prisoners are released on probation, the adjustment period can be very difficult. Sometimes they are released with a fee to pay for their stay there. Those who don’t pay the fee return to prison. But an ex-convict can struggle to find a job and somewhere to live. “They need a place to stay. They need an address. So, so important,” Bradley said.

Secondly, Bradley recommends that “people open themselves up to loving their neighbor.” He says, “Maybe we should embrace them and get to know them and care about them.” Similarly, because most people in prison had fatherless childhoods, Bradley encouraged all the young men in the audience to be good dads. “The more time kids spend with their dads, the more empathetic they are,” he said. “Be a good dad. As a vocation, as a calling, as a job.”

Most strikingly, there is a correlation between aggression and human touch. Bradley said that sensory neglect is a common reason why children grow up into adults with depression and anxiety. In one study, a group of teens in a juvenile detention center received 20-minute back massages regularly for five weeks. “These were highly violent teens with high levels of anxiety,” Bradley stated. Over time, they showed a marked decrease in aggression. “Family matters a lot,” said Bradley.

This talk was one of a series of lectures the Honors Department is hosting this spring. The next one will be in Library 407 at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 21, featuring Professor of Political Science Christopher Wolfe.