Mass Incarceration Is Religious (and So Is Abolition): A Provocation

[This intervention is part of Abolition’s inaugural issue.]

by Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd

18754009870_d13f5c5a27_kThe United States is not just a nation with an enormous number of prisons. It is a prison nation. Carceral logics and affects pervade U.S. culture, including in the arguments we make and in the fear and fury we feel. Not all Americans are equally implicated, but none of us is untouched. Just as Clifford Geertz once read from a cockfight a set of collectively shared secrets endemic to and constitutive of Balinese culture, so too in the United States today, careful observers can witness the knot of pathologies rooted in our prisons, pathologies that are also endemic to the politics and culture outside the walls. Mass incarceration contributes to this culture and politics, and it depends on it. A cursory list of our carceral maladies would include racial inequities, brutal class conflict, the violence of rigid gender norms, broken health care, hollow rhetoric of rights, the management of bare life, and much more. For our nation the prison is an apt synecdoche, and there’s no way to disentangle the part from the whole. For readers of Abolition, in asserting the preceding we are surely breaking little new ground.

Where we might stir you to surprise or resistance pertains to the issue of religion. Coastal elites and the media they control generally portray a country governed by fundamentally secular ideals, but the majority of our fellow citizens and non-citizens know better. We say this not to trot out statistics showing how many of us believe in God, or to venerate the vantage point of the marginalized millions who do. It is to make a more substantive claim about the ideals and values that motivate Americans to collective action. Namely, even those of us who would never be caught dead in a church are filled by the spirit of religion to roughly the same degree that we are subjects of this great and grotesque nation. American culture is soaked through with religious languages, practices, and themes: redemption, hope, love of neighbor, hate of other neighbor, beloved community, holy crusade. These and other religious tropes are woven into the national cultural fabric, and they furnish the tools by which Americans fashion selves and collectivities. This is true of those who comprise the ruling order, and it is equally if not especially true of those of us who struggle to dismantle that order. Considered in this way, religion then becomes a promise and a problem. In public, private, and in mass mediated spaces, elites frequently repress or carefully manage religion – just as they repress or carefully manage race, gender, sexuality, disability, immigration, and labor, so as to smoothly and seamlessly integrate these sites of potential disruption into the workings of power and flows of capital. To understand the U.S. as a prison nation—and to cure the maladies that afflict us—it is imperative that we understand the U.S. as a religious prison nation, and more specifically, as a Christian prison nation.

How to best approach the religiosity of our prison nation? One route would be to start at the beginning with the familiar story about the religious origins of the prison, the “penitentiary:” a place for penance, a place for reform, a place for redemption. These themes endure, but in this brief intervention, we’d rather start with the present. What role does religion play in sustaining mass incarceration today? What role has religion played in underwriting the explosive growth of prisons over the last four decades? And most crucially, what role does religion have to play in destroying mass incarceration?

Three explanations currently circulate for the rise of mass incarceration, none of which accounts for religion in the least. Let’s call these the race account, the politics account, and the economics account. First and most seismically is the framing of mass incarceration as perpetuating a racial caste system. It has been the pull of this political frame, as embodied most influentially in The New Jim Crow phenomenon, that has made “ending mass incarceration” a point of public conversation. Second, mass incarceration is sometimes framed as a political problem, a bipartisan project rooted in ill-conceived ideals and baked through with cynicism and expediency—a grand public works project collectively executed to the catastrophic detriment of the disenfranchised. At the national level, Nixon developed this game, Reagan and Bush perfected it, and after Michael Dukakis’s shellacking, the Clintons went all in. In the third rendering, mass incarceration is a cunning adaptation to post-industrialization, a corporate and civic profit center and a method for managing an urban underclass. Correctional officers and private prison profiteers are the most obvious examples, but in countless ways the subjugated bodies of incarcerated people have become necessary fuel for keeping the wheels of the economy turning. These three explanations, sometimes in isolation, sometimes braided together, are the stories we tell about why mass incarceration happened and what mass incarceration is essentially about.

The critic Kenneth Burke writes of terministic compulsion, the power of compelling explanatory devices to cause those who avow them to stick to their guns, even to their own detriment. So it sometimes seems with the above comprehensive diagnoses. When ossified into ideologies, these blanket diagnoses have the tendency to stifle mass mobilization with their righteous defeatism. When we lash ourselves to the mast of an apocalyptic vision, in which good must confront evil without mercy, ameliorative measures like educating those who are incarcerated, improving prison conditions, restricting solitary confinement, or leveraging austerity politics to shutter a prison or two often seem woefully inadequate. Rather, it is said, we must deal with the depths of the problem: intransigent racism, the stranglehold of neoliberalism, a broken democracy. If these problems are not addressed, prison culture will remain undiminished; indeed, for every marginal “improvement,” some as yet unimagined and more invidious mutation is sure to arise.

Needless to say, we are not unconcerned with systemic injustice on all fronts, including the racial, the economic, and the political. But for combatting prison culture in particular we propose an alternative approach. Yes, prison culture is tied to vexing, deep-seated problems, to original sins and systems of sacrifice. But where the primary mode of political engagement is ideology critique—of diagnosing the “real cause” of the problem—the possibility for large-scale movement building is limited. Moreover, as we can’t resist but point out, this kind of ideological orientation is animated by a religious spirit, made plausible by background theological concepts of discernment and redemption. If only we can pierce the illusions and identify the right social evils, then we can exorcise the demon. Our souls (and bodies) might then live in peace, our collective soul might be redeemed.

We are suspicious of redemption narratives. We propose, rather, to actively and openly engage with that which—for worse and for better—is inextricable from American life: religious traditions, practices, affects, and communities. By bringing such engagement to analysis of and organizing against American prison culture, we might tap a reservoir of revolutionary resources, and in the process, radically expand our coalition. If it could be shown that religion was intimately involved in enabling exponential prison growth, then we might also imagine how religious languages, practices, and communities may be mobilized to abolish prisons. In this vision, religious communities need not be relegated to one coalition partner in a pragmatic, secular movement for prison reform (one that too often results in Pyrrhic victories). Rather, to the extent that religious dissent represents an essential component of the national cultural fabric, by “getting religion,” contemporary abolitionism unleashes the potential to jar our prison nation. Just as religiously-fueled abolitionists transformed the national conversation about slavery in the nineteenth-century, so too today an abolitionism doused in religion may be able to revolutionize the public conversation about prisons, and energize the mass movement necessary for eviscerating America’s prison culture.

What might a religious explanation for mass incarceration look like? Here’s a gloss: At the same time the prison populations were beginning to explode a half century ago, American religious culture was also undergoing a dramatic transformation. Membership in liberal Protestant denominations began to nosedive; evangelical and agnostic affiliations shot up. More important than membership numbers was a shift in public discourse: henceforth, liberal Protestantism no longer formed the assumed backdrop of American political culture. Now, religion came to mean an individual’s choice to believe – in a personal God or in no God at all. Before, religiosity pervaded American culture and God was thought to work through history. To do the collective work of God, to pursue divine justice, meant to make worldly laws more just – that was the political theology famously expounded not only by Martin Luther King, Jr., but also, for the first half of the twentieth century, by mainstream politicians of all stripes. Now, however, with the focus on personal conviction, divine justice no longer has a place in American politics. Religion’s only place (to the extent that religion has a place) is in the individual’s heart. If on the right, neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy remained constitutive of an alleged divine plan (with pastors rallying the laity to vote accordingly) for liberals God absconded, and to complementarily malignant effect. For the precise duration of mass incarceration, progressive politics has been pursued on a purely secularist plane. For far too long, liberals have been tackling problems rather than pursuing higher ideals. What ideals have remained have been hollowed out into thin slogans like Obama’s “hope.” Policy rules, and wonks and administrators are the only ones left at the table. To focus on ideals, and not policies, has become the purview of children and cranks. In such an impoverished landscape, justice as an abstract ideal ceded its existence to the criminal justice system. This system is now everything. Justice has come to mean little more than the proper functioning of the law. This being so, officers of the law—the police, most notably—come to be seen as gods on earth. The cult of law enforcement isn’t merely pernicious; it is, in our view, downright idolatrous.

In short, America doesn’t only have a prison problem, it has a religion problem. While prison culture is inadequately described without sufficient attention to economics, politics, and race, explanations that ignore religion are similarly incomplete. This knot of many strands is what “prison culture” signifies. On which string should we pull? The economic, the racial, and the political all have their promise, but so too, we argue, does the religious. As well, all four also have their perils.

American history is steeped in resources for thinking about divine justice and for interrogating worldly practices that run afoul of God’s law. These religious resources have been essential to American culture, and they remain salient today even as they are drowned out by loud professions of personal faith or personal disbelief. Even communities seemingly animated by evangelical or secularist commitments are formed by deep, old, rich currents of American religion with strong collectivist potential. It is these currents, these lower frequencies of American religious life to which we must attune ourselves today. The justice we want, the justice we need, is larger than ourselves. Now we must own it, testify to it, and enact it here on earth.

These are the frequencies of abolitionism: as it fought slavery, as it fought segregation, as it has fought patriarchy and homophobia, and as today it is beginning to fight not merely mass incarceration but incarceration as such. Like our abolitionist forbearers declared in the Prophet Isaiah’s name: “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” — this is what we will.

As Angela Davis has so persuasively argued, abolition is much more than the singular act of eliminating prisons. Just as America has a prison culture, America also has an abolition culture. Just as American prison culture is religious, American abolition culture is also religious. The spirit of abolition catalyzes social movements. It builds institutions for social democracy. It challenges and reshapes the ways of the world. It addresses concrete injustices but its vision exceeds the pragmatic. It is the spirit of John Brown and Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. To date, it has not sufficiently been the spirit of prison abolitionism. But herein lies the opportunity that we preach. We honor the Black Nationalists, Marxists and other hard left thinkers and organizers who have made us who we are, and who have kept the abolitionist fire burning throughout this dark era of acute national disgrace. But it’s time for a religious turn.

Today, we invite our comrades on the secular left to provincialize their secularism, just as we invite our religious sisters and brothers to transcend their reformism. We are not calling for abolition theology—whether you believe in God or don’t believe in God isn’t to us the important thing. We are calling for, rather, religion. In an expansive, critical, and practical sense, religion must be woven into the growing prison abolition movement. In righteous struggle, as spiritual revival, let us conjure together the spirit of abolitionism, and let us tumble the prison walls down.


About the authors: Joshua Dubler is Assistant Professor of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison (FSG, 2013). Vincent Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. He is the author of Black Natural Law (Oxford, 2016). Together, with funding from the American Council of Learned Societies, Dubler and Lloyd are completing Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the End of Mass Incarceration.

Suggested Readings:

Anidjar, Gil. Blood: A Critique of Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Dorrien, Gary. The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

Douglas, Kelly Brown. Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015.

Kahn, Jonathon and Vincent Lloyd, eds., Race and Secularism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Ruggiero, Vincenzo. Penal Abolitionism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Sinha, Manisha. The Slaves’s Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven, CT: Yale, 2016.

Smith, Ted A. Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. New York: Haymarket Books, 2016.

Taylor, Mark Lewis. The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2015.

Trust Black Women: God Is Change

In this article, Religion and Incarceration co-founder Laura McTighe reflects on social change and accountability in the wake of the Charleston massacre. Guided by the work of her colleagues and comrades from Women With A Vision, Inc. in New Orleans, she explores what it means to participate in the visionary fiction demanded and crafted by Black women, and why our future quite literally depends on doing so.

Trust Black Women: God is Change

By Laura McTighe
The Revealer | June 24, 2015

Author’s Note: In the last two weeks, our national conversation about race has moved from the absurd interrogation of Black womanhood because a white woman donned blackface, to the calculated massacre of Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Depyane Middleton Doctor, Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson under the guise of protecting white women’s purity. The #NotInOurNames hashtag has emerged as an affirmation that white people will not be complicit in racist terrorism any longer. Black women started us chanting and tweeting #BlackLivesMatter. If we are going to realize their vision, we must learn to embrace the leadership they have been providing for centuries – and we must confront the ways in which when we have unwittingly and willfully erased their work.


Photo: Andy Katz/ Corbis via For Harriet

Photo: Andy Katz/ Corbis via For Harriet

“All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change.” In the Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler breathed to life a new religion – Earthseed – based not in the sacred scriptures of elders and prophetic pasts, but in the presents and possible futures of the living. In accepting that God Is Change, believers were called to stand in their own power, to shape themselves, to shape the universe, to shape God. “Why is the universe? To shape God. Why is God? To shape the universe.”

My reintroduction to Octavia Butler came from Walidah Imarisha at a conference I co-organized with Josef Sorett last Fall, Are the Gods Afraid of Black Sexuality?: Religion and the Burdens of Black Sexual Politics. At the conference, Imarisha introduced us to the idea of “visionary fiction” that she and her co-editor, adrienne maree brown, had employed in their newly published anthology, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements. As Imarisha explained, “Visionary fiction is not neutral. It does not purport to be neutral. The goal of visionary fiction is to create social change. All organizing is science fiction.”

It’s a jarring idea to bend your mind around. Every organizer, every change maker, every visionary is writing science fiction. Envisioning a world in which every person has the full freedom to be their full self is science fiction. Affirming that #BlackLivesMatter when nine Black people are gunned down in one of the oldest Black sacred spaces in the country is science fiction. As any organizer will tell you, vision is essential to social change. It’s the end that every protest held, every call made, every sign flown is pointing towards . It’s the hope for dreaming the impossible into existence.

As we struggle to realize the vision that Black lives matter, we have had to swallow yet another bitter truth. Amid the everyday terror of anti-Black violence in the United States, some Black lives matter more than others. We called out for Michael Brown, but could not remember Tanisha Anderson’s name. We set Baltimore ablaze for Freddie Gray, but forgot to light a candle for Rekia Boyd. Activists and scholars alike have pointed out the irony of this occlusion given that the #BlackLivesMatter movement was started by Black women, and that Black women’s leadership has defined what it means to defend the dead. Just as this violence has a history, so to does this occlusion. In the long and unbroken state of emergency in the United States, it is impossible to understand the contours of anti-Black violence and Black people’s resistance without reckoning with the history of how Black womanhood has been produced as a category of non-being – of how Black women’s very humanity has been made illegible.

Photo by Walidah Imarisha

Photo by Walidah Imarisha

That work of exclusion and erasure is also science fiction, albeit of a different sort than what Octavia’s Brood is writing. When Imarisha calls all organizing science fiction, she implores us to think about the gap between what is and what could be, and about how organizers strive to prefigure the future society they are working towards in their everyday political lives. I am calling Black women’s “paradox of non-being” science fiction because it is not reflective of Black women’s actual lives and work; it bespeaks a debased society that totally and completely erases Black women’s lives. The truth is, Black women face real and horrific state, structural, and interpersonal violence every single day. And it is also true that Black women are leading the movements to end this violence. They’ve been doing so for generations. To not speak this truth, to not #SayHerName, is science fiction. When we do not speak this truth, when we do not Trust Black Women, we become part of bringing to life this sick and twisted universe; we help write a future that looks far too much like our present and past…

Continue reading at The Revealer….

Laura McTighe is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. Through her dissertation project, “Born In Flames,” she is working with leading Black feminist organizations in Louisiana to explore how reckoning with the richness of southern Black women’s intellectual and organizing traditions will help us to understand (and do) American religious history differently. Laura comes to her doctoral studies through more than seventeen years of direct work to challenge the punitive climate of criminalization in the United States and support communities’ everyday practices of transformation. Currently, she serves on the boards of Women With A Vision, Inc. in New Orleans, Men & Women In Prison Ministries in Chicago and Reconstruction Inc. in Philadelphia. Laura’s writings have been published in Beyond Walls and Cages: Bridging Immigrant Justice and Anti-Prison Organizing in the United States (2012), the International Journal for Law and Psychiatry (2011), Islam and AIDS: Between Scorn, Pity and Justice (2009), and a variety of community publications.

Reconsidering Evangelicals and “Tough on Crime” Politics

We are excited to kick off our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Aaron Griffith on the role of evangelicals in the rise of the prison industrial complex!

Reconsidering Evangelicals
and “Tough on Crime” Politics

by Aaron Griffith


Charles Colson | Jerry Falwell

Evangelicals make an appearance in a good deal of the writing about religion and prisons, and they usually don’t look too good. To reference just two examples, evangelicals are often linked to the rise of the prison industrial complex either in their seeming unwillingness to challenge its growth or, as Winnifred Fallers Sullivan writes about one evangelical prison ministry, in their inherently complementary nature:

Whether one can conclude that dominant contemporary Christian theologies of punishment actually contributed directly to the increased punitive nature of U.S. society, there is no question that the two are culturally congruent and mutually recognizable (101).

But what if the linkage between evangelicalism and the post-1960s rise of mass incarceration (as well as the “law and order” rhetoric and politics that undergirds it) isn’t so clear cut? To be sure, there were some conservative Protestants very much in support of making laws tougher and punishments harsher. In general, these evangelicals would fall under the broad Christian Right umbrella, seen most prominently in groups like the Moral Majority and in leaders like Jerry Falwell. The Christian Right saw recovering law and order as part and parcel of their broader culture war agenda from the 1970s onward. Jerry Falwell penned newspaper columns that lamented how “Crime is epidemic” and that “Criminals are better protected by the law than the people on whom they prey.” His organization hosted rallies for political candidates that promised to toe the law and order line. The Moral Majority also successfully pushed Congress to get tougher on crime, calling for stiffer penalties and use of the death penalty while causing some congressmen to withdraw their support for bills that would have taken criminal laws in a less harsh direction.[1]

Thus far it would seem that the prison industrial complex and modern evangelicalism are indeed comfortable bedfellows (though it is important to remember that similar “tough on crime” efforts showed up in American culture from all sides of the political spectrum). But this story is an incomplete one, for some evangelicals fought harsh retributive rhetoric and questioned “tough on crime” policies. Though I’m exploring multiple ways that evangelicals challenged the criminal justice status quo in my research, here I will simply discuss one, a misunderstood figure who often is lumped in with the Christian Right by both scholars and popular critics: Charles “Chuck” Colson.

Colson’s story is well known: he converted to Christianity while under investigation for Watergate crimes (he would later serve one year in prison) and eventually founded and led the evangelical Prison Fellowship Ministries. Colson frequently spoke out against the injustices of the U.S criminal justice system and the political culture that sustained it. Consider three examples. In 1981 he called U.S. prison conditions “revolting” and its unfair sentencing laws “insane” and “ludicrous.”[2] In 1983 he wrote approvingly of two courageous judges who bucked callous trends in their state by declaring mandatory minimums unconstitutional and who attempted to grant leniency to a reformed convict. According to Colson, those who are willing to fight the cruel overreaches of American penal practice are heroes; in contrast, “Lady Justice, blindfolded to avoid partiality, is sometimes just plain blind.”[3] Though his conservative political advocacy intensified in the 1990s, Colson maintained his strident views on criminal justice. In a column in the early 1990s he decried politicians’ use of law and order tropes to further their own agenda. “Willie Hortonism” (a reference to the George H.W. Bush race-baiting campaign commercial) and pandering to the public via support of the death penalty were in Colson’s eyes absolute moral scandals.[4]

Much more could be said about Colson and other evangelical attempts to challenge “tough on crime” criminal justice and the rise of the prison industrial complex. And, as scholars like Winnifred Fallers Sullivan have indicated, the story of Colson and Prison Fellowship’s actual work in reforming American prisons is complicated by missteps and overreaches. But the contrast between Falwell and Colson is clear enough. Two questions remain: will scholars recognize this contrast in future studies of evangelicalism and prisons, and will activists committed to challenging the American system of criminal injustice be willing to see certain evangelicals as friends more than foes?


[1] Beth Spring, “Moral Majority Aims at the Criminal Code,” Christianity Today, February 5, 1982, 49.

[2] Tom Minnery, “Lawyers Are Challenged to Battle Secularist Inroads,” Christianity Today, May 29, 1981, 31.

[3] Charles W. Colson, “Taking a Stand When Law and Justice Conflict,” Christianity Today, February 4, 1983, 41.

[4] Charles Colson, “Voting for the Executioner,” Christianity Today, October 8, 1990, 112.

Aaron Griffith is a doctoral student studying American Christianity at Duke Divinity School.

Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions

"Dust to Dust," installation by Hannah Bertram at Eastern State Penitentiary. Photo by Laura McTighe.

An Ordinary Kind of Ornament,” installation by Hannah Bertram at Eastern State Penitentiary. Photo by Laura McTighe.

Mass incarceration and, more broadly, the US criminal justice system are attracting an increasing amount of scholarly attention. From anthropology to sociology, from critical criminology to critical race studies, from literature to history, scholars are turning their attention to perhaps the most pressing social problem in the US today. What can explain the explosion in the prison population? What can explain the continuing, largely ignored violence of “justice” afflicting the most marginalized?

Religious studies scholars and theologians are beginning to address these same questions. We are beginning to ask whether there might be a uniquely religious history of mass incarceration. We are beginning to ask whether the theological significance of such concepts as law and justice, violence and peace has not so much been forgotten as it has been repressed or transformed. We are beginning to ask how religious practices, languages, and histories might be recovered in order to challenge the enormous injustices routinely enacted by the US “justice” system today.

In late October, 2014, we brought together, in Syracuse, NY, an exemplary group of the next generation of religious studies scholars and theologians: graduate students from around the country writing their dissertations on religion and mass incarceration. What made the conversation so exciting was not only the intellectual vigor of our discussion but also each participant’s deep commitment to social justice and grassroots activism.

The graduate students presented works-in-progress, often portions of their dissertations, and faculty experts responded, asking probing questions and suggesting new ways to broaden and deepen our conversation. Participants found the experience exhilarating and inspiring, and we look forward to continuing the work – both scholarly and activist work – in conjunction with the Religion and Incarceration Network in the months and years that follow.

In the posts to appear here in the coming weeks, these graduate students will be presenting summaries of their research projects. We believe that these projects will provoke and inspire, opening new ways to think about mass incarceration inflected by questions of spirituality, church history, political theology, feminist theology, and more. Sometimes the connections between these scholarly endeavors and grassroots activist praxis are obvious; in other cases, querying those connections may lead in unexpected directions. In all cases, we hope that these posts will encourage both scholars and activists to join in the conversation, whether in the classroom or in the office or in this blog’s comments section.

We are grateful to the Religion and Incarceration Network, the Syracuse University Religion Department, and the Central New York Humanities Corridor, through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for supporting this work. We are especially grateful to Laura McTighe, Joshua Dubler, Vincent Lloyd, and Debbie Pratt for providing the logistical support to make the event, and this blog series, possible.

Inside the prison seminary experiment, with Tanya Erzen

Tanya Erzen takes us inside the prison seminary experiment sweeping through the South’s most notorious prisons. Carefully braided reflections from incarcerated people, administrators and instructors illuminate not only the fraught history of religion and incarceration, but also what if any bearing “redemption as a missionary” has on actual, physical freedom.

In the Prison of New Beginnings

In the South’s bloodiest prisons, Baptists say they can reform prisoners by turning them into missionaries.

By Tanya Erzen  |  October 15, 2014  |  Guernica

Jim Shaw, Study for Mound of Skulls (Utopian Landscape V), 1988. Pencil on paper, 17 x 14in. Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Gift of Lannan Foundation


On a steamy May morning south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Erica Bowers Welch, a 46-year-old mother of eight and grandmother of three, debated the Book of Jeremiah in her Old Testament college class at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW). She listened intently as her professor reviewed information for their final exam, which would take place the following week. With her sharp cheekbones, accentuated by hair piled high on her head, Erica exuded a flair that defied the drabness of her prison-issued blue shirt. She sat with her twenty-three classmates at battered tables in the chapel classroom. A map of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus was the only thing disrupting the cinderblock monotony of the walls.

Jeremiah, explained Dr. Kristi Miller, is a book about being oppressed by a foreign power (the Babylonians) but also about how faith in God freed the Israelites. “God does not play with those who oppress others for their own gain. It is a message against people in power. God takes seriously those who abuse their position of power,” she explained. The lesson seemed unusually apt for a maximum-security prison setting.

As Erica and others listened, Dr. Miller drilled them with potential exam questions. “How long were they in captivity in Chapter 25?” The class answered automatically: “Seventy years.” There were a lot of murmurs and sighs. Erica is over a decade into a forty-seven-year sentence, and most of the other women are lifers without even the possibility of parole. Most of them will die here. When Erica finishes her bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry next year as part of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s (NOBTS) first graduating class, she won’t return to the free world. She and her classmates will be sent forth to spread the word of God and, the seminary hopes, reduce violence throughout the vast Southern prison archipelago.

The prison seminary is part of an experiment sweeping through some of the most notorious prisons in the South. In Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and elsewhere, Baptists and prison administrators are molding an army of prisoner missionaries. In the past, these prisons were the epicenter for punitive incarceration. Most of them are former slave plantations or convict-leasing farms where bodies were measured solely in profit and loss. Now these prisons are at the vanguard of a movement where belief in the necessity of punishment coexists with the hope for an individual prisoner’s redemption. The seminary’s idea of freedom for a prisoner is for them to find Jesus and convert others without ever leaving prison.

Continue Reading at Guernica…

Reflections on Ferguson from Laura McTighe

To Take Place and Have a Place:
On Religion, White Supremacy & the People’s Movement in Ferguson

The Revealer | September 18, 2014

FranceFrancois“I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT!!” the block pink letters of France Francois’ sign fired with exasperation. The date was August 14, 2014. Michael Brown had been shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer, Darren Wilson, just five days prior. Francois was one of thousands who took to the streets in cities across the country as part of the National Moment of Silence/Day of Rage. People in Ferguson had not left the streets since Michael Brown’s murder. “I think, throughout the nation, we’re all asking ourselves this question: ‘How did we come here again? How did we find ourselves in this very same space?’” Francois told AlterNet in an interview shortly after the protest. Indeed, how did we?

Undeniably, the death of Michael Brown has erupted onto the national scene in a way that few murders of black and brown people by police have. That itself is remarkable. In the wake of Ferguson, there are many questions that have been bubbling through the country… Why Ferguson? (Where is Ferguson?) Why not New York? Who will be next? The question I have found most troubling is the repeated inquiry by activists, pundits and scholars alike: Will Ferguson be a moment or will it become a movement?

At face value, this might not seem like an inappropriate question to ask. The uprising in Ferguson has shone a vital and painful spotlight on the everyday terror of anti-black violence in our country. Many worry that this attention will be fleeting; they wonder if the organizing in Ferguson will be able spur a more radical transformation of the people, policies and institutions that perpetuate the devaluing of black life.

What I want to call our attention to is a pair of claims that are embedded in the moment vs. movement juxtaposition: first is a claim about how change happens; second is a claim about what counts in American history.

Of the many articles that have been penned in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder, two in particular put a point on the vision of social change swirling around the moment/movement question: educator Josie Pickens’ August 18th article in Ebony magazine, “Ferguson: What’s Respectability Got to Do with It” and historian Jeanne Theoharis’ August 26th piece for MSNBC, “The arc of justice runs through Ferguson.” Both criticize reporting that has portrayed the protesters in Ferguson as disorganized, reckless, even dangerous. Moreover, both call us to examine how a sanitized version of the civil rights movement – stripped of its poor, young and female leadership – undergirds such critiques. In Theoharis’ words, “Such framings memorialize a civil rights movement without young people in the vanguard, without anger, without its longstanding and ongoing critique of the criminal justice system.” Through these fables, we are made to believe that Ferguson must be a moment, because “real movements” do not look like this.

These fables also resign us to a jack-in-the-box approach to social movement history. “Real movements” are past and temporally bounded. A “real movement” pops UP when people make a large (but not too large) demand; it goes DOWN (or is put down) when that demand is met (or is too threatening). It is a thing for the history books. By this account, “real movements” are not only sanitized; they are exceptionalized. And so, too, are the social conditions they seek to address. In this way, we can only ask if Ferguson will become a movement, because we are telling a story of the United States in which there is no continuity of black struggle, much less a need for it.

What power dynamics are at work when the protests in Ferguson are treated like the colorful explosion of the jack-in-the-box? What is at stake in viewing black resistance in such an episodic way? What cannot be seen when it is viewed this way? These questions are at the heart of the #BlackLivesMatter systematic call to action – a call issued in response to the ways in which black lives have been devalued and black suffering has been rendered illegible. In this tradition, I want to call us to a deeper appreciation for the movement being carried forward at Ferguson. To do so, we must commit ourselves to resurrecting events that have systematically been made to vanish from our consciousness. We need to appreciate the often-untold history of black poor people’s movements, as well as the long tradition of black critiques of the everyday rituals of white supremacy. We also need to account for the ways in which our notions of justice and liberation are inflected by religious language and sensibility. This takes us back not simply to the Civil Rights era, nor even to Jim Crow, but rather to the founding of the American republic. It is an uncomfortable history, but it is vital for us to tell it if we are to appreciate what it means to be living into the possibility of justice with the movement still-alive in Ferguson.

Click here to continue reading at The Revealer

Soulful Resistance on Tennessee’s Death Row: Reflections from Andrew Krinks

When we launched Religion and Incarceration, we aimed to build an interactive forum for engaging with the resources religious traditions have to interrogate and oppose mass incarceration, knowing that such explorations unfold most productively through partnerships of academics and activists.

Today, we are grateful to be able to share a series of critical reflections from Andrew Krinks on his collaborative work with men on Tennessee’s death row.  In the blog post below, Krinks discusses how together they revisited the familiar critiques of mind-body dualism from the context of confinement – asking what it means to be human on the way to death and positing a complex theology of soulful resistance.

If you have a post, article or reflection to share, please use our online submission form!


Soulful Resistance on Tennessee’s Death Row
by Andrew Krinks

Derrick Quintero – “If My Journey Were a Book Title” (mixed media. The figure’s head is made from toilet paper and glue.)

Derrick Quintero – “If My Journey Were a Book Title” (mixed media. The figure’s head is made from toilet paper and glue.)

Throughout 2012 and 2013, I had the opportunity to spend time with men on Tennessee’s death row here in Nashville, where I’m also a doctoral student in theological studies at Vanderbilt. Prior to these visits, I had the pleasure of interacting with a few of these guys during unrelated gatherings, so it was a gift to spend more extended and intentional time among men whose magnanimity continues to surprise and enlighten me. The original purpose of these visits was related to an assignment for a class in which students were assigned to conduct field interviews about experiences of embodiment in a particular environment. But after the class ended, the paper took on a life of its own, and the fruit of those interactions was published a few weeks ago at The Other Journal under the title “Soulful Resistance: Theological Body Knowledge on Tennessee’s Death Row.” You can read it at the links below (it was published in two parts).

Part 1:

Part 2:

I share this project here with scholars of incarceration and religion because the essay consists of interviews with men facing execution in Tennessee about their experiences of embodiment in the context of confinement, and about the theological frameworks through which they find meaning in a seemingly horizonless and futureless environment. More specifically, my questions had to do with their material surroundings, the nature of touch and relationality on death row, and their conceptions of body and soul and the relationship between the two. As a student of theology familiar and at home with critiques of so-called mind-body dualism, I faced what was for me an unanticipated challenge when my interviewees articulated what seemed to me to be rather extreme descriptions of the body’s lowliness and the soul’s preeminence, descriptions of the way one must negate the body in order for the soul to be free. I knew that it would not suffice to simply frame their responses as bad theology or to psychologize their perspectives from the comfort and freedom of movement I enjoy outside those concrete walls and razor wire fences. So the task was to make some sense of their articulated theologies in light of their material and relational realities in a way that did justice to their experiences and that presented and synthesized those experiences in a way that might constructively challenge fellow critics of traditional dualisms.

There is no question that I did not fully capture the depth of the experience of life as experienced by my friends on Tennessee’s death row; that would be impossible. But I hope I have done some justice here, by providing a small glimpse into what it looks like to be human in the context of confinement on the way to death. And I hope that these reflections are of some use to you, my colleagues and fellow engaged scholars of incarceration and religion. Thanks, and be well.


Andrew Krinks is a doctoral student in theological studies at Vanderbilt University. His research engages theological frameworks operative in systems of incarceration and constructions of criminality. He also studies the theological dynamics of personhood, agency, and encounter in situations of suffering and oppression.

Ministries of Presence, Ministries of Social Movement Building: Reflections from Grace Ji-Sun Kim

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.

If you have a post, article or reflection to share, please use our online submission form!


What I Learned While Inside Cook County Jail

By Grace Ji-Sun Kim
Posted: Friday, February 7, 2014

We need to work together to build a better justice system that is blind to social class, social status and ethnicity, Kim writes. (PhotoBucket)

“Jesus came to set the captives free. We need to participate in freeing those who are unnecessarily in jail and seek justice and liberty,” Kim writes. (PhotoBucket)

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.

Continue Reading…

Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University.  She is the author of 5 books, and is a co-editor with Dr. Joseph Cheah for the Palgrave Macmillan Book Series, “Asian Christianity in Diaspora.”


Welcome to Religion and Incarceration!

At the 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Religion, there was significant interest in religion, power and the ends of mass incarceration.  In paper presentations, panel discussions and roundtable forums, scholars and practitioners came together to explore:

      • the ways that religious ideas and practices enable mass incarceration,
      • the resources religious traditions have to interrogate and oppose mass incarceration, and
      • the partnerships that academics and activists can forge around these issues.

Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland.

Out of this burgeoning interest, we are working to form a loose network of those interested in these issues, supported in part through this blog where ideas, events, and CFPs can be exchanged.

We invite you to participate, and to invite others you may know with similar interests!