Contrasted Confinement image via Surrealize on Flickr

Contrasted Confinement image via Surrealize on Flickr

San Ysidro Border Crossing (via Wikipedia)

San Ysidro Border Crossing (via Wikipedia)

One year ago my mother-in-law was on a missions trip to Mexico with her church. In the few days they were across the border they played with the children at an orphanage and did much-needed repairs on the buildings. As she crossed back in the United States she was stopped by a federal officer and began to be questioned. Those first questions led to the worst evening in my mother-in-law’s life. She was bounced betwe`en agencies, held against her will, belligerently questioned by the government who was supposed to be protecting her. Worst of all, she was scooped up with the rest of the evening’s arrests, lined up, made to stand naked, and be cavity searched by a female officer who didn’t change her gloves between women. This happened twice. 

She was detained and searched, and her family was terrifyingly kept in the dark, because of a decade old arrest warrant for heroin possession. The warrant was issued for a woman with the same name and who was born on the same month and day as my mother-in-law, though a year apart. Only - and this is the shocking thing - the warrant was from a county that my mother-in-law had never been to in her life and for a 5’9” African American woman. My mother-in-law is a 5’ tall Italian woman. The system that was supposed to execute justice, to punish the guilty and keep society safe, had instead harmed and shamed the innocent. In that evening, the mechanical function of the system had overridden the person.

This impersonal, mechanical system has consequences.

The fact that America is the world’s largest jailor is expensive socially and economically. We have 5% of the world’s population but more than 20% of the world’s prison population. One-in-three African American male babies can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. America spends $80billion annually to incarcerate our over 1.5 million prisoners - that is three quarters of what the federal government spends per year on education. However you look at it, the data on the number of prisoners in America is alarming.

Personal stories and raw data alone are only enough to alarm; they cannot solve. One also has to look at the history and circumstances surrounding the issue. Academics tend to agree in general on the timeline and progression of the history of mass incarceration but diverge greatly when it comes to the circumstances. Because the mass incarceration touches nearly every sphere of our society - legislative, judicial, economic, social, education - proposed solutions are as varied as the lenses through which the issue is addressed.

"Personal stories and raw data alone are only enough to alarm; they cannot solve."


This article will focus on the role that Christian churches can play in addressing the issue of Mass Incarceration in the United States. Religious institutions in general, and Christian churches in particular, are a sphere of society often overlooked by the research. The Christian church, however, is well-situated to address mass incarceration for three reasons. The first reason is connected to perhaps why the church has been overlooked by much of the research: the prevailing theory of punishment has slipped from the realm of morality and justice into either therapeutic or preventative. I will argue that there is a need for the church to advocate to for a theory of punishment anchored to an objective view of justice and morality. Secondly, addressing mass incarceration can be unwieldy because it spans so many spheres of our society; however, the church by its nature of being first a people before it is an organization is well-suited to meeting needs on both sides of the issue. Lastly, in agreement with many suggestions that the greatest need in correcting the problem of mass incarceration is empathy, the Christian church, by its nature, is driven by conviction and empathy towards reconciliation and justice. I will trace the history of mass incarceration, highlight the divergence of views on its causes, show that while the terrain of the causes is broad there are a few ways forward that can be agreed upon, and conclude by arguing that the Christian Church is well-positioned to play a significant role in addressing mass incarceration.


Tracing the Lineage of Mass Incarceration

While Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow, traces mass incarceration back to the Jim Crow laws during 19th century slavery, many other scholars would would agree on the late 1960s as the origin of mass incarceration. In the 1960s America had a rehabilitative view of punishment - the ultimate point of incarceration was to restore a criminal to a normal life by training and therapy - that had been in place since the late 1800s. Crime waves and urban riots, particularly around the Civil Rights Movement, led to spikes in crime around the country. In response, in 1971 President Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs’ and by 1973 the first mandatory sentences for drug possession were enacted in New York State. The legal shifts that opened the door for mass incarceration only increased over the next decade. The 1980s saw increased crime, allegedly driven by crack cocaine, and the response of President Reagan’s “War on Drugs”. As a part of that war, Congress passed mandatory sentences for drug traffickers. The crime wave of that started in the 1960’s led to ever-increasing legislative responses over the next two decades.    

As public opinion was swayed, fueled in part by the media’s focus and portrayal of the threat posed by drugs, two important components to the history of mass incarceration occurred, both politically-driven responses.  The first is that during President Clinton’s presidency the federal government provided grants and funds to states in order to build prisons in exchange for the states adopting laws like the “Three-Strikes” laws, mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, and Truth-In-Sentencing laws were passed - which required prisoners to serve at least 85% of their sentences. (The former President, by the way, has said on record that he regrets these policies precisely because of their contribution to mass incarceration.) The second reaction involved district attorneys incentivized by an increase in public support for tough-on-crime legislation. District attorneys, being elected officials and many being politically mobile, were motivated to achieve records that showed they were tough on crime, as could be reflected in number of cases prosecuted, won, and criminals sent to jail. It would appear that with these two developments public outcry had led to legislative response, which led to positive public reaction, which moved the issue from a legislative to one that is politicized, and the momentum toward mass incarceration hit full stride.

Shining Light on the Narrative

However, this is where it is helpful to shine light on claims stemming from the New Jim Crow tribe. To this point, it would appear that mass incarceration was caused by the War on Drugs as a way to target a particular race for political gain. However, two crucial stats and one fact counter this narrative. The first is that in the 1990s, as some of the harshest tough-on-crime legislation was being enacted, violent crime fell. Yes, most agree that the War on Drugs is an abysmal failure. However, violent crime didn’t just fall, it plummeted by half according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 1990 the violent crime rate was 64 per 1000 males and by 2000 it was down to 30. Secondly, at its height, the number of prisoners who committed drug offenses made up only 25% of the prison population. On the level of violent crime, mass incarceration would appear to have had a positive effect. Lastly, the African American community has been devastatingly impacted by mass incarceration; however, to focus entirely on that group is to miss the broader reality. The fact is that the mass incarceration problem is not limited to all African Americans (because middle and upper class African Americans are not incarcerated at the same rate) and neither is it limited to African Americans in general but includes whites and hispanics. While the number of prisoners in America is staggering, one cannot ignore the data that shows the dramatic decrease in violent crime and that mass incarceration is more broadly a class rather than solely a race issue.

"The African American community has been devastatingly impacted by mass incarceration; however, to focus entirely on that group is to miss the broader reality."


The Church's Role in The Way Forward

The way forward is far from unified because of the scope and diversity of the quantity of circumstances and voices on the topic of mass incarceration. Suggested (and necessary) solutions span the spectrum of legislative, political, social, educational, and economic reforms. For the purpose of this article we will narrow our scope to one sphere of society, the role of the Christian church in addressing mass incarceration. In the landscape of addressing the issue, there is one unique role the church can play and three collaborative roles it can be effective in.

In the last sixty years, the American church has been essentially divided down party lines. When it comes to social issues, the conservative side of the church has tended to focus more on advancing legislation through political process, advocating for the unborn and traditional marriage. Their emphasis tends be more on American idolatry. The more liberal side of the church has tended to focus more on addressing issues like race, income inequality, and same sex marriage. Their emphasis tends to be on American injustice. The blindspot for both sides is to see that idolatry and injustice always go together — idolatry always results in injustice and injustice needs idolatry to justify it. Like all social problems, mass incarceration involves idolatry and injustice and is an opportunity for both sides of the church to work together for a holistic approach.

Advocating for a Classic Theory of Punishment

The unique role the church can play is to fight to restore the humanity of criminals by advocating for true justice - a return to a classic theory of punishment instead of the current tension tension between the utilitarian approaches of rehabilitative and deterrent punishment. This argument falls right in line with conservative church’s advocacy for objective morality and human beings having inherent worth because they’re created in God’s image. Two of the most vocal and helpful conservative voices that could take the lead on this topic are Russell Moore and Albert Mohler, both Southern Baptists. Moore and Mohler are recognized nationally as key voices for conservative Evangelicals, particularly because of their staunch and winsome advocacy not only for the Pro-Life and traditional marriage movements but also racial reconciliation. Both could provide a clear, compelling, and winsome call for the rights of prisoners and a return to a classic theory of punishment.

Russell Moore,   President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

Russell Moore,  President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

"It is not a stretch to say that the reason over 1.5 million Americans are incarcerated is a consequence of a system that has dehumanized people and diminished justice in the name of rehabilitation and deterrence."

The counterintuitive problem is that both the rehabilitative and deterrent theories of punishment dehumanize the criminal. A rehabilitative theory turns the criminals into patients in need of curing by specialists who determine when the prisoner is ready to re-enter the general population. The problem is who defines what ‘normal’ is? Who decides when the prisoners has acceptably displayed a behavior change? The word rehabilitative sounds well-intentioned but it is most certainly a punishment — a punishment without a clear end date. It is ‘healing’ not justice; healing that could be used in the hands of a coercive power. A deterrent theory turns criminals into examples to made for the ‘good’ of others. The prisoner becomes a means to an end; one not his own. They are sacrificed for the good of society. Both dehumanize a person because they remove the one thing our system is supposed to provide: justice. The classic theory of justice has to do with the removal of randomness and the administration of punishment for what a crime deserves. It is not a stretch to say that the reason over 1.5 million Americans are incarcerated is a consequence of a system that has dehumanized people and diminished justice in the name of rehabilitation and deterrence. 

One of the most precious rights of an American citizen is to that of a trial by a jury of peers should the need arise. The reason the Founding Fathers included the jury of peers is to keep verdicts out of the hands of a coercive power. That hasn't stopped sentencing from being corrupted by these dehumanizing theories that have taken away the rights of citizens. Conservative Christian churches and groups need only take one step from abortion to euthanasia to the rights of people to be sentenced according to what the law says they deserve, not what psychologists or the state think they deserve. That would be justice.

The late Chuck Colson, Founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries

The late Chuck Colson, Founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries

Addressing The Ecosystem Around Mass Incarceration With Diversity

The more liberal side of the church can also play a collaborative role in agreement with a few of the other solutions proposed. Firstly, and most broadly, is the need to address the ecosystem around mass incarceration - social circumstances on the front end, rehabilitation while incarcerated, and support upon reentry. Historically, the church has played an important role in the lives of communities beyond the spiritual - education, social services, and medical care. In many parts of the world one of the best ways to funnel aid into communities after a disaster is through churches. In urban centers in America, many churches have food banks, mentoring programs, services for the homeless, and medical clinics. This has been a sphere that Catholics and mainline Protestant churches have traditionally done well at but, thankfully, they are also being joined by an increasing number of conservative Protestant churches as well. Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship is one of the most effective and recognized faith-based groups already active in addressing the needs of prisoners. Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan and Sojourn Church in Louisville have also successfully combined conservative theology with a holistic engagement of the needs of an urban area. While Prison Fellowship is more conservative, more liberal groups like Jim Wallis’ Sojourners and the Catholic Worker’s Movement have been great advocates for social issues.

"The diversity of the community means that though the church as an organization may be limited in its reach, the church as a community is not."

More important than the organizational abilities of churches in urban areas is the nature of the church as a diverse community. The diversity of the community means that though the church as an organization may be limited in its reach, the church as a community is not. In one church community you may have people who volunteer at local non-profits, entrepreneurs who start socially-conscious businesses, employers who incentivize their employees to serve groups that address the social issues related to mass incarceration, or people who financially support social services in the city. Now compound that over the number of churches in a city and you can see the reach of a diverse community. A secular non-profit may only be able to hit one aspect of one dimension of the issue because it will have a particular focus - it will meet a particular need, in a particular place, for a particular people. Studies have shown that some of the most effective groups in addressing mass incarceration are faith-based - groups staffed, supported, and funded by members of local churches - who are able to address the social issues on the front end, the need for rehabilitation while a person is imprisoned, and help the person re-enter into society because of their diversity.


Empathy as the Glue for a Multi-Racial Movement

Lastly, bringing together conservative and liberal, justice and diversity, is the need for a multi-racial movement and greater empathy between the general population and the convicted, and the middle class and lower-income urban communities. Mainstream research with various diagnosis of the problem of mass incarceration find agreement in these two needs as part of the solution. Christianity is a truly inclusive, trans-cultural faith. It is not centered on or limited by geography, language, or cultures like the other great faiths. For example, if you were to take the Christian churches in the nearby urban center of Santa Ana, CA you would see not only the major denominations but Hispanic, Chinese, Tongan, and Ethiopian churches. Not to mention, you would find people across the socioeconomic spectrum. A unified and mobilized group of churches in a city could play a significant role in catalyzing a multi-racial, multi-class movement.

"The great equalizers of being both created in the image of God and beloved sinners in need of rescue levels the playing field and cultivates an empathy that cannot be coerced or sloganized." 

The diversity of a multi-racial movement needs glue to hold it together: empathy. The Christian church has one unique element to it that no other non-profit, for-profit, or social services entity has: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously proclaimed that all men are equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; a belief the Founding Father’s drew directly from the Christian doctrine of Imago Dei - all humans being made in the image of God. The next leveling truth of the Gospel is that everyone one of us is in need of mercy - all of us stand as criminals, all of us have tarnished records, all of us have harmed and wounded and broken — and not only mercy but love is offered to us through trusting in Jesus’ perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection. The great equalizers of being both created in the image of God and beloved sinners in need of rescue levels the playing field and cultivates an empathy that cannot be coerced or sloganized. It is an empathy that springs from gratitude that Someone else has substituted themselves for me; that Someone else advocates for me. It is an empathy that is aware of both idolatry and injustice. It is an empathy that has undergirded centuries of struggle; from alarming the Roman government by feeding the poor and caring for those dying from the plague to the founding of the Red Cross, from the establishment of some of the world’s greatest learning institutions to the Abolitionist movements in the UK and US, and from the founding of hospitals all over the United States to Mother’s Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta. It is an empathy that can and should address mass incarceration through the unique diversity of the Christian church.

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Nick Bogardus