Break Every Yoke

Religion, Power and the Ends of Mass Incarceration

American Academy of Religion
Religion and the Social Sciences Section
Monday, November 25, 2013
4:00 PM-6:30 PM

Why do we punish with the severity that we do? As compared to our friends and allies, the United States of America has long been notably zealous about worshipping its gods and punishing its criminals. Never has this been truer than today. This roundtable discussion will explore the rationales—both stated and implicit—of how and why American state actors have come to punish as they have, and will stage the conversation in a way that centers the voices of those formerly incarcerated individuals and communities who are actively working to counter the punishment surge. Our discussion is animated by two claims: (1) Without the religious ideas and practices that lend it meaning and support, mass incarceration would be unthinkable and impracticable; and (2) Religious ideas and practices offer reformers tremendous possibilities for imagining and generating more just ways of doing justice.

To speak of religion and incarceration in the United States is to conjure a vexed and uncomfortable history. After all, it was through observing our prison systems that a young Alexis de Tocqueville came to describe the curious religious character of Democracy in America. Just a decade after the Declaration of Independence proclaimed the equality of men and their God-given inalienable rights, a group of middle-class religious progressives devised a carceral method befitting this new nation of rights-bearing republican men. They called it the penitentiary. In 1790, sixteen cells in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail were converted from holding areas for those awaiting public corporeal punishment to sites of solitary confinement in which prisoners were left to penitently reflect, repent and realign themselves with that of God in them. While the alternative model offered in Auburn New York in 1817 added the element of silent labor, the underlying penitentiary rationale was the same. These antebellum institutions were spirited by two principals: 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. Scholars of the prison generally agree that by mid-nineteenth century, the penitentiary’s founding aspiration had been abandoned, leaving the institution branded with its name to hobble on without coherent philosophical justification, a machine without a ghost. If at first glimpse, however, current carceral theory and practice in the United States bear little resemblance to the antebellum system for restoring fallen citizens’ tarnished souls, it is incumbent on scholars and practitioners of American religion to note the abiding religious character of American punishment.

Our multidisciplinary roundtable conversation explores the ways in which the current era of American mass incarceration, even and especially as the prison has become the prototypical secular institution, remains exceedingly and curiously religious. Together, panelists will probe the religion-imbued and religion-repressing cultural forces that make the imprisonment of 2.3 million Americans seemingly just, and from the standpoint of our crisis-riddled present, inevitable. Moreover, we will engage with the religious ideas and practices that provide prison reformers with tremendous possibilities for imagining and generating more just ways of doing justice.

Panelists contend that not by cold science alone can we account for the prison boom of the last four decades, during which time the number of Americans in prison has grown by over seven hundred percent. “Justice” and “punishment,” as secularized theological concepts, carry with them normally repressed Christian histories, and underappreciated theological logics. Common sense religious assumptions about the relationships between crime and moral failure, and between suffering and redemption, help to make mass incarceration the proper vehicle for generating public safety, and the wholly obvious justification for the widespread suspension of the nominally sacred American ideals of freedom, democracy and equality. Both at the level of the individual prisoner and at the level of social collective, the site of the prison remains a place for Americans to tell stories about the fall and about sin, about men and women lost and forsaken, and sometimes about those same men and women transformed and redeemed. The Federal Court may well bar religious agents from using state funding to administer explicitly religious curricula to American prisoners, but that will not render the religious doctrines and archetypes that inform the logic of American incarceration any less powerful.

To trouble the uses (and abuses) of religion for and within the American carceral state, panelists explore the histories and geographies of contemporary prison worlds from the vantage point of religious movements behind the walls. While in the sixties and seventies, prisoners’ religion was often collectivist and revolutionary, Muslims and Christians in the controlled lock ups of today largely carve out individualized paths of personal righteousness for themselves, a goal that dovetails with the interests of prison authorities. On the inside, being “tough on crime” necessitates that prisoners be tough on themselves. In part, this story has to do with how American institutions of “mass worship” and “mass punishment” seek to transcend—and therein reinscribe—racial, religious, and sexual difference. And yet, within the communities hardest hit by mass incarceration, prophetic talk increasingly provides a grammar for bearing witness to the mass disappearance and reappearance of residents, and for imagining a future beyond mass incarceration. Nationwide formerly incarcerated citizens’ movements, often led by people who honed their religious practices in those very institutions that prefigured individualized penitence, are pressing local and state governments to repeal draconian sentencing practices, remove the often-permanent restrictions placed on people with criminal convictions, and redirect funds from the ever-expanding carceral apparatus to community-based institutions.

By juxtaposing the disciplinary logics of secularized religious punishment with these theologically-driven movements for decarceration, panelists consider how religion and incarceration might be more productively studied and engaged. Drawing on examples from our research and activism, we show how sustained focus on the religious dimensions of state-organized campaigns to stabilize, purge, or purify their domains of control should no longer be left exclusively to the domain of the secular. Moreover, we shine an important light on social justice reformists who are drawing on the Gospels and the Sunnah to make their arguments, and ask how their efforts, if amplified, might build a coalition capable of ending mass incarceration.

John D. Carlson, Arizona State University

Hakim Ali, Reconstruction, Inc.
Joshua Dubler, University of Rochester
Rev. Doris Green, Men & Women In Prison Ministries
Vincent Lloyd, Syracuse University
Laura McTighe, Columbia University

James Logan, Earlham College

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