Graduate Student Workshop on Religion and Mass Incarceration

The rapid growth of prisons in the United States, and globally, has recently attracted a great deal of scholarly attention. How have religious ideas and practices contributed to the rise of mass incarceration, and how might religious ideas and practices contribute to its demise? How have religious traditions themselves been affected by a culture that now equates justice with “law and order”? We intend to bring together graduate students whose work investigates these issues using a variety of methods (ethnographic, historical, theoretical, textual) and at a variety of sites (various religious traditions, inside the US and beyond, inside and outside prison walls). We are particularly interested in projects that participate in, reflect on, or attempt to catalyze grassroots organizing around these issues. Participants will provide feedback to each other as well as receive feedback from faculty. They will also be asked to compose a blog post summarizing their project for a general audience. The workshop is organized in conjunction with the Central New York Working Group on Religion and Mass Incarceration (a joint project of Cornell, Syracuse, and Rochester) and the Religion and Incarceration Network (

artwork by mary tremonte,

artwork by mary tremonte,

The workshop will be held at Syracuse University on Friday, October 31, 2014. We will reimburse travel and accommodation expenses. We invite applications from doctoral students in any discipline whose research is relevant to this topic. To apply, please submit a 2 page abstract (~750 words) of the work that you would present as well as your CV to Vincent Lloyd ( by July 20, 2014. Questions can also be addressed to Vincent Lloyd. Notification by August 1, 2014.

Please forward widely!

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.

Podcast: Alyshia Galvez on Guadalupan New York – Activism and Devotion among Mexicans in NYC

Event-GuadalupanTUNE IN HERE to listen to Alyshia Gálvez talk about activism and devotion among Mexicans in NYC:


Professor Gálvez is a cultural anthropologist (PhD, NYU 2004) whose work focuses on the efforts by Mexican immigrants in New York City to achieve the rights of citizenship. This talk asks: How do spaces of devotion become spaces of activism? What role does faith play in the construction of civic spaces and civil society among recent immigrant groups? What are the limitations of these forms of social mobilization? This talk will explore a decade of Guadalupan-based devotion and activism for immigration rights among recent Mexican immigrants in New York City. Based on Gálvez’s extended ethnographic research in New York City and many years of activism and advocacy, she will reflect on the changing immigrant rights movement and its intersection with faith based institutions and organizations.

Professor Gálvez joined the Department of Latin American and Puerto Rican Studies at Lehman College/City University of New York in the Fall of 2007, as an Assistant Professor. Her book Guadalupe in New York: Devotion and the Struggle for Citizenship Rights among Mexican Immigrants was released in December 2009 on New York University Press. Her second book, Patient Citizens, Immigrant Mothers: Mexican Women, Public Prenatal Care and the Birth Weight Paradox, is in press in the series Critical Issues in Health and Medicine, on Rugers University Press. Other recent publications include Traveling Virgins/Virgenes Viajeras, a special issue of the journal e-misférica which she co-guest-edited; a volume she edited, Performing Religion in the Americas: Media, Politics and Devotion in the 21st Century (Berg/Seagull 2007); and articles in Social Text, International Migration, e-misférica and Revista Enfoques (Chile).


This talk was delivered on Tuesday, February 12th, 2013 at Columbia University in the City of New York as part of Fencing in God? – Religion, Immigration, and Incarceration.  Hosted by Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life, this Spring 2013 semester-long series of events  focused on the ways in which religion and mobility intersect with immigration and incarceration.

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.”


Contribute Your Questions, Your Syllabi, Your CFPs and Your Resources…

Artwork by Pete Yahnke, Voices from Outside: Artists Against the Prison Industrial Complex,

Artwork by Pete Yahnke,

Since launching Religion and Incarceration two weeks ago, we have been overwhelmed by the interest in this burgeoning network.

As scholars of religion and incarceration, prison chaplains, teachers of in-prison courses, currently/formerly incarcerated activists, family members of those on lockdown, and people committed to working across these spaces to realize an end to mass incarceration, each of you brings a wealth of expertise to our collaborative forum.

To that end, we want to encourage you to contribute the resources that support you in your work, and also to solicit ideas from others in this network.

Please use the contact form below to submit a Blog Post, a Call for Papers, an Upcoming Event, or any other information that might be of interest to Religion and Incarceration readers and contributors.

Cell Blocks and Border Stops: A Conference at Union Theological Seminary

ippimageIn October 2013, Union Theological Seminary’s Center for Race, Religion and Economic Democracy and the Alliance for a Just Society’s Institute for Pragmatic Practice brought together organizers, religious scholars, academics, policy leaders, journalists, and grassroots activists for Cellblocks and Border Stops: Transformative Activism in an Age of Dehumanization.  Together, national and local collaborators examined the intersection of immigration control and mass incarceration, and considered the future of activism and organizing in these areas.

The Center for Race Religion and Economic Democracy‘s youtube channel features interviews with participants, videos of conference panels, and clips of the testimonies from incarcerated people read aloud throughout the conference, including:

Panel on Capitalism, Neoliberalism, & Control
• Moderator: Daniel HoSang
• Panelists: Pramila Jayapal, Vincent Warren, Joy James

Interview with Vince Warren, Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights

Interview with Monami Maulik, Executive Director, D.R.U.M.

And More…

You can also find a report of the October 17-19, 2013 events online.

Religion, Abolition, Mass Incarceration: A Conference at Cornell University

MattedIn October 2013, a diverse selection of scholars, free and incarcerated prisoner advocates, and religious workers gathered in Ithaca, New York to probe the undisclosed means and ends of contemporary mass incarceration. Religion was central to their inquiry:

Since the advent of the penitentiary, imprisonment in the United States and much of the world has been underwritten by religion. Simultaneously, as paradigmatically demonstrated by the nineteenth century abolitionists, religious ideas and practices offer untapped resources for re-imagining justice.

While the conference date has since passed, the website offers a wealth of information for scholars and activists interested in the intersection of religion and incarceration.

In advance of the conference, contributions were solicited from a number of men incarcerated in New York and Pennsylvania. These have been uploaded as image files in the section, Correspondence from Afar.

You will also find detailed Abstracts from the conference’s panel presentations on topics including Activating Religious Potentialities; Secularized Religious Ethics and Prisoner Solidarity; Methods, Poetics, & Utopias of Abolition; Religious Workers on Decarceration and Prisoner Solidarity Movements; Theologies & Counter-theologies of Mass Incarceration; and States of Captivity & Religious Justice in Latin America.

You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love a Kosher Prison Meal

From the New York Times, January 20, 2014


Inmates see kosher food as fresher and safer than the usual. Troy Wayrynen/The Columbian

Inmates see kosher food as fresher and safer than the usual. Troy Wayrynen/The Columbian

MIAMI — Captive diners know that a good meal is hard to find.

Airplane passengers, for instance, have been known to order kosher meals, even if they are not Jewish, in the hope of getting a fresher, tastier, more tolerable tray of food. It turns out that prison inmates are no different.

Florida is now under a court order to begin serving kosher food to eligible inmates, a routine and court-tested practice in most states. But state prison officials expressed alarm recently over the surge in prisoners, many of them gentiles, who have stated an interest in going kosher.

Their concern: The cost of religious meals is four times as much as the standard fare, said Michael D. Crews, who is expected to be confirmed as secretary of the Department of Corrections in March.

“The last number I saw Monday was 4,417,” Mr. Crews said of inmate requests at his recent confirmation hearing before a State Senate committee. “Once they start having the meals, we could see the number balloon.”

To which, Senator Greg Evers, the Republican chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee remarked: “Is bread and water considered kosher? Just a thought. Just a thought.”

Kosher meals in Florida cost $7 a day; standard costs $1.54. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Kosher meals in Florida cost $7 a day; standard costs $1.54. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Florida, a state with a substantial Jewish population and the third-largest prison system, stopped serving a religious diet to inmates in 2007, saying it cost too much and was unfair to other prisoners. Several inmates have challenged the move with little success. Last year, though, the United States Department of Justice sued Florida for violating a 2000 law intended to protect inmates’ religious freedom. The federal judge in the case issued a temporary injunction in December, forcing the state to begin serving kosher meals by July until the issue is decided at trial. Florida is one of only 15 states that do not offer inmates a kosher diet systemwide.

Kosher food in prisons has long served as fodder for lawsuits around the country, with most courts coming down firmly on the side of inmates. As long as inmates say they hold a sincere belief in Judaism — a deeply forgiving standard — they are entitled to kosher meals, even if takes a little chutzpah to make the request.

“Florida is an outlier,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented inmates around the country. “It’s a holdout. I don’t know why it’s being a holdout. It is strange that Florida, of all places, is placing a special burden on Jewish inmates. It’s just stubbornness.”

In Florida’s prison system. which faces a $58 million deficit, money is the easy answer for the battle against kosher food. The cost of three kosher meals in Florida is $7 a day, a big jump from the $1.54 for standard meals, Mr. Crews said. In New York State, where 1,500 inmates out of about 56,000 keep kosher, the cost of a kosher meal is $5 a person. In California, where some prisons have kosher kitchens, the price tag is $8, and the meals are served to 0.7 percent of about 120,000 inmates.

Last April, facing an inmate lawsuit, Florida began a pilot program for the religious diet at Union Correctional Facility near Jacksonville. Initially, some 250 inmates signed up, Mr. Crews said. But once other inmates spied the individually boxed lunches, 863 expressed a sudden interest in keeping kosher.

Prison officials began to fret that if those numbers held, the cost of the kosher program could reach $54.1 million statewide. “You are talking about a lot of money,” Mr. Crews said.

But lawyers and chaplains said prison officials were inflating the numbers as a scare tactic, a common move in some states. “They are trying to make the problem bigger than it is,” Mr. Rassbach said.

And even if it did cost $54.1 million, budget anxiety is not a compelling enough reason to deprive an inmate of a kosher meal, the courts have ruled.

When the meals are first offered in prisons, demand for them jumps and then begins to wane. For some, the choice is genuinely religious.

But some inmates, gentile or otherwise, have been known to profess a belief in Judaism for decidedly secular reasons, chaplains said.

In a world of few choices, the meals are a novelty, a chance to break from the usual ritual of prison life. Others believe the kosher turkey cutlets and spaghetti and meatballs simply taste better. But some see it as a safer bet.

“Inmates have a lot of paranoia about what they are being fed,” said Gary Friedman, a chaplain who is chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International and has dealt with the issue of kosher prison meals for more than two decades. “About how the food could be adulterated, how the prison uses out-of-date products, how they use things that don’t meet U.S.D.A. standards, how sex offenders may be handling their food.”

“If they are using prepackaged, sealed meals, the inmates believe they are safer,” he said.

In the past, some gang members have declared themselves Jewish so they could sit apart, in the kosher meal section, and talk business. The meals are sometimes bartered for coveted items.

Eventually, inmates grow bored with the narrower offerings. “And then what happens?” Mr. Friedman said. “It drops off.”

But the question of who gets a kosher meal is tricky. In all, less than 1.5 percent of the country’s 1.9 million inmates are Jewish, according to the Aleph Institute, a social services organization, and many do not even request kosher meals. “Who is a Jew?” Mr. Rassbach said. “People disagree about who is a Jew.”

The courts steer clear of that perilous debate. Instead, inmates need only say they have a “sincerely held” religious belief.

Attempts by prison officials and rabbis to quiz prisoners about the Torah and the rules of keeping kosher were ruled not kosher. Tracing maternal lineage was similarly viewed unfavorably.

“Knowledge does not equal sincerity,” Mr. Friedman said.

Some states, like New York, do nothing to try to discern who is feigning Jewishness. In California, inmates talk with a rabbi who will gauge, very generally, a prisoner’s actual interest.

But some Jewish groups in Florida are pushing for greater control, which may pose a difficult legal hurdle.

“There should be away to ascertain who really does require a kosher meal for their religious belief,” said Rabbi Menachem M. Katz, director of prison and military outreach for the Aleph Institute in South Florida, “and who is just gaming the system.”

A version of this article appears in print on January 21, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love a Kosher Prison Meal. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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!