Spirituality and Abolition – Call for Submissions

IMG_1245A Call for Submissions for an issue of the Abolition journal on “Spirituality and Abolition,” to be edited by Ashon Crawley and Roberto Sirvent.

Abolition is a spiritual practice, a spiritual journey, a spiritual commitment. What does abolition mean and how can we get there as a collective and improvisational project, how can we define it and get there as a desired and desirous practice? To make a claim for abolition as spiritual practice, journey and commitment is to consider the ways abolition — in the historical and contemporary sense including movements against slavery, prisons, the wage system, animal and earth exploitation, racialized, gendered, and sexualized violence, and the death penalty; movements against patriarchy, capitalism, heteronormativity, ableism, colonialism, the state, white supremacy, etc. — necessitates epistemologies that have been foreclosed through violent force by Western thought of philosophical and theological kinds, it is to claim that the material conditions that will produce abolition are necessarily Black, Indigenous, queer and trans, feminist, and also about disabled and other non-conforming bodies in force and verve.

This Call for Submissions asks: what can prison abolition teach us about spiritual practice, spiritual journey, spiritual commitment? And, what can these things underscore about the struggle for abolition as a desired manifestation of material change in worlds we inhabit currently? To ask about the relation between abolition and spirituality is not to contend fundamentally with particular doctrines, creeds or theologies rooted in particularities of religious traditions, though those traditions in their particularities might create a path in the direction of such an idea and imagined possibility. It is to consider the ways abolition provides a framework for thinking with and also against the strictures of doctrine, creeds and theologies that have us contend against each other for purportedly squandered resources of imagined connection. To consider the relation of abolition to spiritual practice, spiritual journey, spiritual commitment, is to underscore the resurgence, survivance, reparation, and oppositional futurities of Black, Indigenous, queer and trans, feminist, and also about disabled and other non-conforming bodies imagination, being in worlds otherwise. We seek essays, poetry, artwork and reflections that attempt to think through these relations and relationalities.

Please submit abstracts to Ashon Crawley and Roberto Sirvent (ashon.crawley@gmail.com and rdsirvent@hiu.edu) by November 1, 2018. Final submissions will be due by March 1, 2019.

We also encourage submissions from incarcerated writers and artists. We can receive mail at:

Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics
1321 N. Milwaukee Avenue
PMB 460
Chicago, IL 60622

 

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.

“Theory On The Ground” | at NYU Center for Religion and Media

The NYU Center for Religion and Media series on RELIGION AND VIOLENCE presents THEORY ON THE GROUND: Religion and spirituality, repressing and redeeming the struggles for justice. A conversation about how religion, race, gender, and sexuality intersect in the battle to resist state violence.

When: November 5, 2015 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

Where: 20 COOPER SQUARE, 4TH FLOOR

Theory-on-the-Ground-Poster-Version-5-622x1024Discussants: NYLE FORT (Princeton University), DEON HAYWOOD (Women With A Vision, Inc.), JOSEF SORETT (Columbia University). Moderated by LAURA MCTIGHE (Columbia University).

You can read more about them here.

CO-SPONSORS: NYU PRISON EDUCATION PROGRAM AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES

Poster Artwork: “Study” by Pete Yahnke Railand

Prison Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning with Imprisoned Writers

This edited collection will address educational practices and pedagogies for teaching writing in prisons.  The collection’s framing concept argues for social and political consciousness within prison writing education that represents equal and shared learning between writers and teachers.  The collection will offer material that advocates an equalitarian pedagogy for prison writing education while exploring how writing projects can model student/teacher collaboration in order for learning to occur for both teacher and student.  More directly, how do knowledge, writing, and social activism combine in writing classrooms within a prison setting?

Essays of interest might include autobiographical discussions of learning as a result of teaching writing in prisons; pedagogical issues and methods specific to prison education; politics of teaching writing in prisons; gender and minority status in prison writing; impact of security levels on writing programs, particularly educational offerings to supermax residents; interaction of writing and performance for inmate writers; teaching different genres of writing in prison; and U.S. prison writing in languages other than English.

The editors are particularly interested in essays focused on the work and meanings of writing in prison, and the social context in which incarcerated writers pursue individual and group writing.  We invite essays from prison teachers and administrators, education volunteers, educational administration professionals, rhetoric & composition communities, and education faculty at universities. Essays from those teaching outside prisons should make clear the basis of their teaching engagement with inmate writers.  We welcome and encourage theoretical discussion, but essays should employ clear and accessible language.

Please send 250-word abstracts, or full draft manuscripts of previously unpublished material, to the co-editors no later than January 31, 2016 for consideration.  Include a 100-150 word bio.  Authors will be notified by February 15, 2016.  Where relevant for contributors from academic institutions, a copy of IRB approval must be submitted upon acceptance, and a permissions chart must be submitted with the final draft.  Final drafts of selected abstracts or manuscripts will be due on June 30, 2016. Essays should not exceed 10,000 words; bibliography in Chicago style; and 11 pt. Courier font with one inch margin.  Anticipated date of manuscript completion to be submitted to the publisher for peer review is planned forDecember 1, 2016. Revisions will be required in early fall of 2016. This volume is under consideration by a major university press; however, publication of individual manuscripts cannot be guaranteed.

Send proposals and submissions as Word file attachments via email to Joe Lockard (Joe.Lockard@asu.edu), Department of English, Arizona State University, and Sherry Rankins-Robertson (sjrobertson@ualr.edu), Department of Rhetoric and Writing, University of Arkansas-Little Rock. Queries are welcomed.

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.

Making Time: Religion & Black Prison Organizing, an Interview with Hakim ‘Ali

Who makes time in prison? And how do they make it?

In this article, Religion and Incarceration co-founders Laura McTighe and Hakim ‘Ali speak about Islam and black prison organizing in 1970s Baltimore in anticipation of the NYU event, “Making Time: Discipline and Religion in America’s Prisons” on April 10, 2015. More information about this roundtable conversation can be found here.


Making Time: Religion & Black Prison Organizing, an Interview with Hakim ‘Ali

by Laura McTighe
The Revealer | March 27, 2015

hakim

Hakim Ali.

It is shortly after the Fajr morning prayers and snow is falling as big as fists. Hakim’s deep laughter punctuates the steady chug of the steam radiator in the corner, as he launches into another tale of a Philadelphia long since passed. I smile in knowing recognition. Hakim has an unparalleled gift for storytelling. We have been talking for almost an hour.

Colloquially, folks often speak about incarceration as “doing time.” What Hakim and I have been discussing is the idea of “making time.” Can we better understand the everyday work of building geographies of confinement, as well as the complex strategies for transforming our darkest of institutions, if we think about time as “made” rather than “done”? Who makes time in prison? And how do they make it? Hakim knows the world of prisons far better than most: he spent forty years of his life behind bars. “And it is only, ONLY by the grace of Allah that I am sitting here having this conversation with you,” Hakim reminds me, with a sudden somberness. “I am a Black Muslim man, 71 almost 72 years of age, and I understand fully what that means in this day and time, in this country, and in the world.”

Hakim and I met in Philadelphia more than a decade ago. Our connection was one of intention as much as coincidence: in 1978 – the year I was born – he had been transferred to the federal prison in Lewisburg, PA – the town I lived in as a teenager. Over the years, we have built a relationship of closeness and reciprocity, as beloved friends and comrades. Through our work together, I have come to know Hakim as a poet, an educator, a revolutionary, a father, and a confidant. He rarely talks about how he survived the hell of the local, state and federal prisons that held him captive, and I know better than to ask. Those silences in his life story have been built up because of too many small abuses to count, because of great and incomprehensible ones.

But this morning, under the guise of “making time,” with the snow showing no sign of relenting, Hakim began to speak about his conversion to Sunni Islam, his work with the Revolutionary Action Movement, and the Baltimore bank robbery that catapulted him into the caverns of justice in America. The year was 1972. The date was February 23rd.

* * *

When we got popped, the Baltimore cops told us the folks in Philly were calling a citywide holiday. The “Philly 5” they called us in Baltimore. Of the five, three of us were Sunni Muslim and one of us was Nation of Islam. And the other one, because of his association with us, was sympathetic to Islam, even though he wasn’t Muslim. So Islam was our point of unity as we were doing what we were doing, existing before the trial, and even during the course of the trial in the way that we were referred to, you know.

A National Guardsman watches detainees in the Baltimore city jail on April 10, 1968, six days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. (Weyman Swagger/Baltimore Sun)

A National Guardsman watches detainees in the Baltimore city jail on April 10, 1968, six days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. (Weyman Swagger/Baltimore Sun)

So one day while we were in the city jail, we were in the yard – something had just happened, a dude had tried to escape earlier – and they had everybody out of the buildings and we were in the yard, with the police around us. I saw this brother walking down the yard, and he had this paper rolled up in his back pocket. And I saw different parts of words – something about Islam, and the some parts of the Arabic… So I approached him, and asked him, “You mind if I look at that?” and he said, “Man, you can have it.” And he gave me the paper. So I opened up the paper, I was reading it, and it was in fact a newsletter coming from this masjid in West Baltimore. It had an address and contact information, so I got together with the other brothers and showed them the paper and we decided to see if we could get some materials sent in for us to read.

Just to be clear: Sunni Islam was not in Maryland. Anything related to Islam was the Nation of Islam, or this little small group of dudes who were Five Percenters. At the start, we didn’t have intentions of establishing anything in the jail. We were just seeing if we could get some materials, something to read, or a contact. But eventually this effort on our part led to us establishing traditional, orthodox Sunni Islam in the Maryland system.

First, we started with the city jail, where we were awaiting trial. Eventually we got somebody to come out. The first visit was a personal visit – the Imam, Ali Akbar, came out and met with one of the people in our group. Then Ali came back again, and we created an opportunity for him to meet not only with ourselves but also with a couple of other brothers that we found out were there and were Sunni Muslim. They had been existing under the radar, you know what I mean? Because the Baltimore jail is transitional, and folks were focusing on their case.

So we got to the point – and I’m really, really, really summarizing this – that we were able to get this brother Ali from the masjid to come in and meet with the Superintendent of Baltimore city jail and we literally got jummah started there. It was the first time that the dude had heard about jummah, it was the first time that Muslims from the community had even entertained the thought of coming into the city jail. And from that, later on down the line, a position was created where Ali got appointed as the community Imam – the representative of Islam for the Baltimore jail.

That was sort of our first political/religious statement, with all the other stuff we were doing prior to coming to Baltimore and getting locked up. We believed that we were in the course of revolutionary action, taking from the government, supporting the people… It was the same sort of concept as what the Black Panther Party was doing, but we had not been building institutions. We mostly just focused on meeting the community’s immediate needs – helping folks with rent, paying their bills, getting food… So this was the first real thing that we literally did in an institution, and to this day what we started still exists.

So that was a real spiritual change for me….

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.

Tracing the Theo-Logics of Criminalization

We are excited to continue our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Andrew Krinks explores the the secularized theo-logics that make possible the contemporary hyper-criminalization and incarceration of poor and non-white communities in the U.S.!


Tracing the Theo-Logics of Criminalization

by Andrew Krinks

From the Atlantic Monthly’s March 1, 1982 cover story by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson entitled, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” This article served as a foundational theoretical contribution to what would become the institutionalization of a new wave of the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, and non-whiteness in the 80s, 90s, and today.

From the Atlantic Monthly’s March 1, 1982 cover story by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson entitled, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” which served as a foundational theoretical contribution to what would become the institutionalization of a new wave of the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, and non-whiteness in the 80s, 90s, and today.

My project is catalyzed by the fact that the United States of America incarcerates poor communities and communities of color at rates wildly disproportionate to those of white and non-poor communities. From my perspective, incarceration is an inherently destructive solution to the harm that communities experience. Indeed, as my project seeks to demonstrate, while incarceration is purported to be a means of properly dealing with harm, it most often functions instead as a perpetrator of further harm in that it controls, contains, and disappears whole communities that are already the inheritors of centuries of dispossession and displacement.

The question that drives my project, then, is: What logics undergird the operation of systems of criminal justice in the U.S. that make the hyper-incarceration of non-white and poor communities not only possible but so deeply entrenched? With other scholars and activists whose work seeks to chip away at the prison-industrial complex, I deny the racist and classist position that reconciles the disproportionalities of American incarceration by concluding that black and poor communities must simply be predisposed to “criminal” behavior. Rather, I take the position that the racial and class-based disproportionalities of incarceration in the U.S. are indeed the result of a racism and classism that manifests in the form of a phenomenon known as “criminalization.”

The term “criminalization” here designates those processes whereby non-normative or marginal populations are constructed in the popular imagination as inherently prone to criminal behavior, which in turn justifies the disproportionate application of the law through policing and legislation, which, in turn, filters a disproportionate number of non-white and poor persons into the criminal justice system, thereby controlling, containing, and disappearing populations deemed a risk or threat to the good order of society. It is a vicious cycle, and one whose inner dynamics my project seeks to uncover.

But my project is not simply an exercise in sociological analysis or political theory, though such work is necessary and has bolstered my own in indispensible ways. Rather, my project seeks to follow the trail of the “theological” in the hyper-criminalization and incarceration of poor and black communities. Put another way, my project explores the ways in which the criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color and poor people in the U.S. constitutes a phenomenon whose rational structure and undergirding logics may be said to be, in significant part, theological.

It is often the assumption of historians of penal institutions that, unlike early American experiments with incarceration, contemporary prisons have become thoroughly secularized such that the function of prisons may no longer be described as bearing any religious or theological character. My project seeks to problematize this account by drawing out the secularized theo-logics that continue to undergird policing and prisons today.

In brief, my theological analysis investigates carceral theological anthropologies and soteriologies (doctrines of the human and salvation) that undergird the hyper criminalization and incarceration of black and poor communities. I argue that moral virtuousness and normative personhood are articulated in and through the category and inhabitation of whiteness, as a transcendent, god-like subject position and mode of being spatialized in the form of property, such that blackness, which is marked by what I call “original criminality,” is always already trespassing in a nation that is essentially and constitutively white space. Likewise, by tracing the lineage of contemporary broken windows policing to earlier vagrancy laws, I demonstrate how the contemporary sin of poverty is bound up with the immorality of refusing participation in the capitalist economy, or in literally transgressing the boundaries of property upon which one’s presence can only ever be a contamination and blockage of the moral flow of capital.

Through theological and genealogical analysis of archival material, policy manuals guiding broken windows policing, property law, interviews on experiences of criminalization and incarceration, and popular rhetoric on race, poverty, and criminality, my project seeks to make legible the logics that undergird the contemporary hyper-criminalization and incarceration of black and poor communities as secularized theo-logics, all in order that new, liberative theological modalities might enter in to contribute to the dismantling of the racist, classist machinery of the prison-industrial complex.


Andrew Krinks is a doctoral student in Religion at Vanderbilt University