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More Jails, Gated Communities a Sad Commentary on Society

The gap between the rich and poor widens as the underprivileged are locked up or kept out of guarded neighborhoods.

August 27, 2000|BISHOP JAIME SOTO

Recently, I was visiting a new housing tract near a proposed church site. As part of the pitch for buying into this particular tract, I was advised of the planned security features for the new development.

I pointed on a map to some of the still-to-be-developed areas, inquiring about the plans for these locations. I was told they are intended for apartments but there is still hope this designation will change to condominiums or something more compatible with the neighborhood. I was assured that, in any case, the residents of that site will not have access to the pool or "private park" intended for the residents of the tract in question. There were the usual nods around the table affirming how favorable this would be.

As I left, a simple wooden gate clacked shut behind me. It reminded me of a similar sound I heard while entering the Santa Ana Jail to celebrate a Catholic Mass on Sunday, July 9, the Jubilee Day set by the Holy Father to pray for and with all the incarcerated. That sound, more a metallic clang, is rather routine in such a place. At first, one may be unnerved by the sound of the solid door. Upon repeat visits, the sound becomes part of the fearful nature of such a place, as I've found since I began celebrating Mass in the jails of downtown Santa Ana in 1986.

The two experiences point to separate yet related trends that continue to lock some people in and keep other people out--the unabated growth of gated communities and jails. In the vacuum of any viable vision for building stronger communities and bridging the still-yawning gap between rich and poor, these two trends become uneasily yet inevitably compatible.

This is not simply a matter of whether someone who commits a crime should be locked up and thus potential crimes may be deterred and justice served. It is more a question of how we choose to protect ourselves and provide a hopeful and meaningful environment for our children. Is that a private matter or one that obliges each of us to one another as part of a social covenant?

I was disheartened when a New Year's investment prognosis, noting the increased consumption of goods in our society, suggested that stocks in security companies would be a good investment because the security industry would be a growth industry in the first decade of the new century. Having the means to isolate oneself and one's family from the dangers of too much community does not necessarily make it the preferred course or the prudent choice.

In poorer working-class neighborhoods, without the option of buying up and out of the community, people often have made more heroic but, in the balance, wiser decisions to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods through community-organizing efforts such as the Orange County Community Congregation Organization. Those families share many of the hopes you will find elsewhere in the county. They want good schools, safe streets, clean parks and good jobs. They want those who threaten their children to be caught and arrested. Their poverty often forces them to look into their own hearts to find the courage and hope in what they can build together as neighbors and partners, rather than choosing to isolate themselves even further behind better locks, louder alarms and higher walls.

The nagging despair over our ability to create public institutions and places that bring the diverse people of this county together means that, by default, we create only those that will keep us apart: gated communities and jails.

These are not just decisions for public decision-makers. They are also part of the private and personal decisions we all make, decisions and habits that carry a public consequence: the lack of affordable housing for working poor families because no one wants them in their neighborhoods or parks, the inability to get local funding for schools, the lack of health care and livable wages for significant portions of the county's residents because aggressive investment returns must be protected.

The county's attempts earlier this year to use the tobacco settlement dollars for jails instead of health care only dramatize what has become a headstrong, blinded march toward a point where the routine, fearful sound of the jail sadly will find its place in our neighborhoods, and then the only difference will be the walls we build.

Jaime Soto is auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange.

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