To speak of religion and incarceration in the United States is to conjure a vexed and uncomfortable history. In the antebellum period, Protestant reformers and ministers worked to infuse the new nation’s punishment practices with religious ideals and sensibilities. Along the eastern seaboard, penitentiaries and reformatories were designed with two principles in mind: first, the inalienability of the atomized redeemable soul, and second, the power of concrete, seclusion and forced labor to stimulate personal transformation.
What relationship the prison’s religious beginnings has to contemporary American carceral practice is an open question. So, too, is the relationship that religious people should have to prison(er)s in our current moment of mass incarceration. It is undeniable that prison ministries have been one of the few vehicles supporting inside/outside work across prison walls. And yet many also see an imperative for people of faith to move from a “ministry of presence” to one of “social movement building” to realize an end to mass incarceration.
Does presence within systems of dehumanization advance the broader political work of social transformation? How can we reconceptualize the engagement of interpersonal fellowship and societal change? What role do more traditional prison ministries play in this process?
These are questions that all of us at “Religion and Incarceration” will be chewing on for a while, in both our scholarly and our practical work. We are grateful to member, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, for sharing some reflections on prison visitation and the prophetic work that Jesus calls Christians to, which she originally wrote for for EthicsDaily.
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During a wintery storm in Chicago and much of the eastern U.S., I experienced many flight cancellations, delays and missed flights.
Amid that storm, I had the opportunity to visit the Cook County Jail with Jesse Jackson and many community leaders from the Chicago area.
With 12,700 inmates, the Cook County Jail is the largest single site jail in the country, larger than Riker’s Island (12,300 inmates) in New York City.
A jail is the responsibility of a county, as opposed to a prison, which is the responsibility of a state or the federal government.
The visit took about 3 1/2 hours. We first met with the sheriff and workers in the jail. They gave a 30-minute presentation about the conditions, statistics and events that occur within the jail.
However, this could not prepare me for what I was about to experience.