Haunted Passages: On Carrying the Past and Envisioning Justice

What do we do with our collective histories of violence?

In this photo-essay, Religion and Incarceration co-founder Laura McTighe descends into the bowels of Johannesburg’s notorious Number Four prison, and reflects on on how we remember, what we work to forget, and whether we are willing to be haunted by those histories that are not really past.

Haunted Passages: On Carrying the Past and Envisioning Justice

by Laura McTighe
The Revealer | February 24, 2015

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.” -Nelson Mandela

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.” -Nelson Mandela (Photo by Laura McTighe)

“That’s because you live in the United States of Amnesia!” my friend chided as we descended into the bowels of Johannesburg’s notorious Number Four prison. “Indeed,” I laughed in agreement. Back home, I was far more accustomed to the “it wasn’t that bad” approach to our nation’s past, as if whitewashing our collective histories of violence would make them go away. For more than a century, the “Moonlight and Magnolias” myth of life in the antebellum South has dominated our national consciousness. Only one plantation in the United States – Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation – tells the story of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved, and it only just opened on December 8, 2014 after a long, embittered struggle led by local Black residents. Entering Number Four, I was unable to contain my shock at how meticulously the curators of this prison-turned-museum had documented the perversions of apartheid justice perpetrated within the carceral complex.

Number Four is a relic of apartheid governance: even in their confinement, people classified as native, coloured and Asian had to be kept separate from whites. In its heyday, Number Four held some of the most notable leaders of the liberation struggle. But the vast majority of those confined were the hordes of Black people arrested every day under the Pass Laws that controlled their movement in and out of the townships to which they had been forcibly relocated. Today, the hallowed walls and recesses of Number Four are filled with the oral and written testimonies of former political prisoners, creating a painful, if imperfect, archive of life inside.

Ekhulukhuthu (the deep hole) isolation cells extended along the furthest-most wall of Number Four. Each concrete box is fixed in time, stripped of bedding with only a small beam of natural light filtering through the peep hole guards used to spy on those confined. Now, only one cell door remains bolted shut. When I turned to my friend for explanation, his finger was already outstretched: “That cell is haunted.” I nodded slowly, as my gaze refocused on the closed isolation cell door: “I think this whole place is haunted.”

(Photo by Laura McTighe)

(Photo by Laura McTighe)

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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.

Sustainable Activism, Prison Abolition, & the Spirituality of Recovery

We are excited to continue our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Mauricio Najarro on 12-Step Program spiritualities and our collaborative work of liberation and prison abolition!

Sustainable Activism, Prison Abolition, & the Spirituality of Recovery:
Christian Dispassion as the Affective Dimension of Liberation

by Mauricio Najarro

Photo by Skip Goodman, castrocountryclub.org

Photo by Skip Goodman, castrocountryclub.org

Confronting the problem of mass incarceration in the United States today requires not only commitment and investment, but also endurance, compassion, and humility. It is, however, very difficult to cultivate these virtues while honestly and courageously acknowledging the debilitating emotional reactions that accompany sustained contact with police brutality, radical socioeconomic inequality, and the disavowals and apathy that constitute the privilege of some achieved at the expense of others.

Theological reflection on liberation from enslavement to the emotional consequences of structural sin can provide orientation and inspiration leading to sustainable activism. Affective liberation, freedom for action and from affective attachment, has the ability to ground both conscientious educational initiatives inside prisons and spiritually nourishing activist movements beyond prison walls.

Working within prisons and towards prison abolition, while building communities and coalitions, demands a significant investment from individuals who are called not only to action but also to self-examination. Learning the truth of oppression often elicits a deep and debilitating rage. Anger, particularly in the form of self-righteous indignation, is a toxic fuel that poisons the communal atmosphere and corrodes the possibility of meaningful dialogue. Individuals both inside and outside prisons must transform their justified anger from self-righteous and corrosive indignation to orienting, productive, and enabling outrage. Outrage, unlike resentment, results in liberating praxis that recognizes the dangers of codependency in social justice work. Liberation in its broadest sense thus includes a struggle for justice within a freedom from affective attachment and codependent obsession.

Non-attachment, coupled with effective and vigorous action in the world, is the affective dimension of liberation that is deeply resonant with ethical and political dimensions of theological reflection originating in the work of Latin American liberation theologians and US Latino/a liberationist thinkers committed to critical thought and strategic interventions in the service of the brutalized and oppressed. Jesuit theologian Ignacio Ellacuría writes:

Liberation is a concept that represents the very essence of the revealed message and God’s salvific gift to humanity. That message and that gift may be viewed from other points of view, but if they are not viewed from the perspective of liberation, they remain substantially reduced and often mischaracterized.[1]

Drawing from the work of Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Angela Y. Davis, Ignacio Ellacuría, and R. Michael Wyatt, I present 12-Step Program spirituality as a model for the liberating praxis of sustainable Christian activism inside and outside prison walls. 12-Step Program spirituality, with “its somatic focus, its reservations about cognition, and its reliance on the mutually informing life of the group,”[2] offers unique and valuable insights into the daily discipline of freedom from active addiction and codependent obsession.

In my work, I recover Christian Patristic authors’ concept of dispassion (apatheia) as the affective dimension of liberation, enabling and sustaining the ethical and political engagement required of authentic Christian discipleship. Dispassion, which is never apathy, complacency, or inaction, can be understood as the freedom to feel feelings that do not control or determine behaviors. Contemporary ethical and political engagement requires the rigorously honest recognition of the dangers of codependence masquerading as Christian care. A dispassionate approach to activism requires a healthy skepticism regarding the vociferous and passionate enthusiasm that is often mistaken for deep and abiding commitment. Building coalitions and fostering relationships among unlikely allies requires both mindful discernment and the active cultivation of impersonal instrumentality. This is a kenotic emptying of selfhood and a rejection of an egotism that binds. Such an approach can be depicted as a grafting of the Patristic notion of dispassion to the practices of liberation — at once “physically concrete and spiritually open”[3] — of men and women in recovery from active addiction.


[1] Michael E. Lee, Ignacio Ellacuria: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013), Kindle Locations 812-814.

[2] R. Michael Wyatt, “Experience and Community: Twelve-Step Program Theory, American Pragmatism, and Christian Theology” (PhD diss., Emory University, 1996), 3.

[3] Wyatt, 199.

Mauricio Najarro is a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union

Humans, Not Convicts: Dismantling Mass Incarceration through Moral Rehabilitation?

We are excited to continue our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Stephanie Gaskill on her research on “moral rehabilitation,” a faith-based reform program at Angola Prison in Louisiana.

Humans, Not Convicts:
Dismantling Mass Incarceration through Moral Rehabilitation?

by Stephanie Gaskill

Jesus on the Cross

Bobby Wallace, pictured in center, plays the role of Jesus in The Life of Jesus Christ, a passion play performed by prisoners from Angola Prison and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in Angola’s famous rodeo arena.

Two basic questions drive my research on religion and mass incarceration. First, how did the U.S. come to incarcerate so many of its Black and Latino citizens? Second, how can the system of mass incarceration be dismantled? I focus in particular on the idea that the fate of the prison system hinges on whether or not prisoners are perceived to be human beings. Prison populations rose dramatically in the 1970s in part because prisoners at this time were portrayed as less than human. Popular media drew implicit connections between people of color and criminality, capitalizing on long-standing racial prejudices to make the mass imprisonment of black and brown people publicly acceptable. It would seem to follow, then, that refuting such depictions could help to dismantle mass incarceration: prove that prisoners are human beings, and the public will no longer consent to their imprisonment.

But how exactly do prisoners and their advocates prove that prisoners are humans? Who determines what acceptable proof of humanity is? I investigate the role of religion in this strategy through one case study: moral rehabilitation at Angola Prison in Louisiana. Angola is known for its origins as a slave plantation and its reputation as “the bloodiest prison in America.” Because of Louisiana’s draconian sentencing laws, Angola is home to the largest population of lifers in the world. But moral rehabilitation, a program of evangelical faith-based prisoner reform initiated by Angola’s long-time warden, Burl Cain, presents the supposedly “softer side” of this notorious prison. Moral rehabilitation is supposed to reduce violence and increase productivity inside the prison. But the successes of moral rehabilitation are also meant to convince members of the public that prisoners are human beings capable of change and worthy of a second chance. The fact that prisoners participate in the religious education and programming offered through moral rehabilitation is supposed to be particularly compelling proof of their humanity.

The fact that moral rehabilitation asserts prisoners’ humanity through their religious activity is especially fraught for African Americans incarcerated at Angola. African Americans’ humanity has been challenged on a variety of fronts, from slavery to the present, and attempts to prove black humanity have often been met with skepticism and scorn. Furthermore, religion has been both a boon and a burden for African Americans, used to render blacks more sympathetic to whites, but also to cast African Americans as excessively emotional and incapable of functioning in “civilized” society.

In this context, I am investigating how different groups associated with Angola implement or strategically navigate moral rehabilitation to prove that prisoners are humans. I examine the perspectives of the warden, prison ministry volunteers, members of the public, and prisoners themselves, focusing on the roles of race and religion in each group’s efforts to promote prisoners’ humanity and criminal justice reform. I conclude my project with a chapter on men released from Angola after they were exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted. Exonerees’ struggles to rebuild their lives after incarceration highlight the question of African American humanity in light of the monetary and moral debt owed to them. If proving prisoners’ morality is the means to end mass incarceration, what moral reckoning will occur once the system is dismantled?

Ultimately, I hope my research can shed light on the benefits and pitfalls of humanization of prisoners as a strategy for ending mass incarceration, as well as the complicated role religion and race play in this strategy.

Stephanie Gaskill is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina’s Religious Studies Department.

Reconsidering Evangelicals and “Tough on Crime” Politics

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

Reconsidering Evangelicals
and “Tough on Crime” Politics

by Aaron Griffith


Charles Colson | Jerry Falwell

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CFP! Workshop: Teaching Theological and Religious Studies Inside Prison Walls

Call for Participants

Mass incarceration has drawn broad scholarly interest, and theological and religious studies scholars have begun to join this conversation. At the same time that scholarly interest in mass incarceration is on the rise, an increasing number of colleges, universities, and seminaries are offering classes inside prison walls, including religious studies classes. Higher education opportunities inside prisons were once common, but incarcerated students were excluded from Pell Grants in the US in 1994, leading to a decimation of the prison education landscape. In Canada, also in the mid-1990s, there was a parallel shrinkage in prison education opportunities. Yet teaching university courses in prisons poses unique challenges and offers unique opportunities, both for instructors and students. It offers those who are incarcerated the skills to think critically about themselves and their environments in a space that does not encourage critical thought, and it offers them the ability, post-incarceration, to articulate their experiences with mass incarceration and to shape the wider landscape of higher education in democratic societies. Teaching theological and religious studies inside prison walls promises insights of pedagogical value outside prison walls and to the burgeoning field of theological and religious studies scholarship on incarceration.

On May 3, we will convene a workshop of experienced and aspiring prison educators who are particularly interested in seeing theological and religious studies taught in prisons. The workshop will be held in Montreal (the AAR-EIR regional conference is May 1-2). Through group discussions, sharing experiences, and individual mentorship, this workshop will promote the growth of, and critical reflection on, teaching theological and religious studies in prisons. We invite theology and religious studies scholars interested in starting or growing prison education programs to apply to the workshop, which will also include several invited, highly experienced educators. We will provide participants with accommodations for two nights in a hotel, meals, and a travel subsidy. We intend this workshop to be the first step in a longer collaborative process.

To apply, e-mail your CV and a one page description of your reasons for applying to Melanie Webb (melanie.webb@ptsem.edu) and Vincent Lloyd (vwlloyd@syr.edu) by February 20, 2015. Notification by March 1, 2015.

This workshop is supported by an American Academy of Religion Regional Development Grant.

Inside the prison seminary experiment, with Tanya Erzen

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

In the Prison of New Beginnings

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

By Tanya Erzen  |  October 15, 2014  |  Guernica


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


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

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

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

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

Continue Reading at Guernica…