Reversing The Injustice of Mass Incarceration — an interview with prison chaplain Kendall Hughes

The recent unprecedented increase of inmates in U.S. jails and prisons is commonly referred to as mass incarceration.

The increase is a result of racial injustice for people of color as documented by Michelle Alexander in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow.  (revised in 2012)   It is also economic injustice as described by Peter Edleman in his 2017 book Not a Crime to be Poor.   For some in America it has become a crime to be poor.

In this edited interview prison chaplain KendalI Hughes identified actions that can and must be taken to change the justice system to prevent counterproductive imprisonment and offer hope for redemption and rehabilitation to millions of inmates and their families.   The complete interview is available upon request to

Hughes has 20 years of service in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and is now a hospital chaplain at the federal prison in Rochester, Minnesota.

How extensive is mass incarceration?

In 1972, 161 U.S. residents were incarcerated in prisons and jails per 100,000 population; since then the rate has more than quintupled to a peak of 767 per 100,000.Over 2.4 million people are currently incarcerated in the US, which is the highest percentage in the world.

 Our percentage is 8 to 10 times higher than several countries in Europe which have lower crime rates. In the US  688,000 people are released from prison every year and almost 12 million people cycle through local jails. And those numbers can be multiplied by the number of children and other close family members that are devastated by the incarceration of their parent, spouse or child.

 Even though prisons are often hidden from view and prisoners ignored, how does mass incarceration affect society?

So it is naïve to conceive of prisons and jails as separate from the rest of our society.  There is both a huge economic and personal cost to separating so many families. Any prison chaplain can tell numerous heart rending stories of the suffering mass incarceration is causing.

 Study after study is indicating that the costs exceed the benefits of locking up many of the people who are currently behind bars. The longer someone is incarcerated, the more likely they are to recidivate.  As one judge said about the US prison systems, “We are winning at losing.”

What needs to change?

The majority of those behinds bars are not there for violent crimes.

They are not people society is afraid of, so instead of giving non-violent offenders lengthy sentences, (without the possibility of parole for Federal Inmates) courts could be given the option of using Risk Needs Assessments tools that have been rigorously tested to predict the probability of recidivism. 

 Inmates could then be given the option of participating in programming that addresses their needs and decreases their risks of reoffending. They could thereby earn the opportunity for supervised release.  Both the Senate and the House currently have legislation before them that would accomplish this.

 What is the role of for-profit prisons?

 For-profit prisons have a powerful lobby in Congress and are seeing their revenue and market shares soar as a result of mass incarceration.  The policies that permit powerful corporations to profit by locking up more people for longer periods of time need to be changed.

 How does the U.S. justice system disadvantage people of color?

There is a large racial disparity in the percentages of those who are incarcerated. Disadvantage accumulating at each step of the process contributes to blacks and Latinos comprising 56% of the incarcerated population, yet only 30% of the U.S. population. A variety of policies need to change to rectify this disparity.

 How does poverty contribute to mass incarceration?

 Over 95% of criminal cases result in a plea bargain. Prosecutors have tremendous leverage in getting lower income defendants to plead guilty and accept long sentences instead of going to a jury trial without the resources for an adequate defense and facing an even more onerous sentence.

Are compassionate release programs working?

While there are policies in place to allow for the compassionate release of inmates who are terminally ill or of advanced age, only a minute fraction of inmates ever benefit from these policies.  It is common for totally incapacitated inmates and those in their late 80s and 90s to be refused a compassionate release.

What is your present assignment?

My assignment is to care for the spiritual needs of the 681 men who are incarcerated in this prison hospital.  The primary focus of my ministry here is to prepare the men to successfully return to their communities as men of integrity.

Are chaplains assigned to all federal prisons?

All federal prisons have at least one full time chaplain. There are currently 257 chaplains serving the 122 federal prisons (which the BOP calls institutions).

What was the purpose and result of the ‘Life Connections Program (LCP) you initiated at Leavenworth?

The purpose of the LCP is to decrease both inmate misconduct and recidivism and humanize the correctional environment. In the fourteen years I supervised the program at Leavenworth we achieved a nearly 50% reduction in serious prison misconduct and in the recidivism of LCP graduates. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the LCP housing unit in Leavenworth was significantly more integrated, safer and wholesome than the rest of the prison, and that over time the LCP also helped reform the prison environment.

How can faith communities help inmates during incarceration and upon release from prison?

A primary way faith communities can help is by volunteering to mentor inmates both during their incarceration and post incarceration.  On the BOP.Gov website under “Religious Services” there is a link and a training video for anyone wishing to volunteer as a mentor.

You can also contact Prison Fellowship or the Salvation Army and ask for training as a mentor to inmates.

They can also contact Congress and encourage the passage of either Senate Bills 1917 or 1994 – (a bill to reduce recidivism and increase public safety) and House Resolution 3356 – Prison Reform and Redemption Act.



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1 Response to Reversing The Injustice of Mass Incarceration — an interview with prison chaplain Kendall Hughes

  1. David Felter says:

    Thanks for the reminder that such an enormous challenge exists. For too many of us, it remains just beyond our field of vision.

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