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

falwellcolson

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

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Jim_Shaw_Mound_of_Skulls_Utopian_Landscape_5_1988_600.jpg

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…

Special Journal Issue: The Ethics of State Punishment

To advance our collective work of interrogating the theological underpinnings of punishment, we are happy to share that Studies in Christian Ethics has released a special issue on “The Ethics of State Punishment.” The articles gathered in this issue were first presented at the third annual McDonald Symposium in Theological Ethics at Cambridge University, 13−15 May 2013.

In introducing the issue, Sarah Coakley explains, “The notable turn back to a ‘neo-classical’ retribution theory in this period, the relentless and punitive crack-down on minor drugs offences, the increasing privatisation of prisons, and the more recent and haunting fear of terrorist attack: all these factors have been undeniably important in the rise in prison populations, but they cannot explain the overall cultural acceptance of such an extraordinary state of affairs in ‘the land of the free’.”

Please scroll down for article links…

Studies in Christian Ethics

The Ethics of State Punishment

August 2014; Vol. 27, No. 3

Introduction

Introduction: Ethics, Theology and the Contemporary Conundrum of State Punishment

Sarah Coakley

Articles

Moral and Philosophical Problems of Long-Term Imprisonment

Alison Liebling

Response to Alison Liebling’s presentation

Loraine Gelsthorpe

The Ethics of Punishment and the Ethics of Restoration: A Critical Analysis

William J. Danaher, Jr.

Probing the Logic of Forgiveness, Human and Divine

Cristian Mihut

Trusting the Untrustworthy: The Theology, Practice and Implications of Faith-Based Volunteers’ Work with Ex-Prisoners

Ruth Armstrong

Response to Ruth Armstrong

Tim Winter

Change from Within? A Response to Ruth Armstrong’s Article

Jamie Bennett

Can Persistent Offenders Acquire Virtue?

Anthony Bottoms and Joanna Shapland

Response to the Work of Professor Steiker

Charles Mathewes

 

Reflections on Ferguson from Laura McTighe

To Take Place and Have a Place:
On Religion, White Supremacy & the People’s Movement in Ferguson

The Revealer | September 18, 2014

FranceFrancois“I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT!!” the block pink letters of France Francois’ sign fired with exasperation. The date was August 14, 2014. Michael Brown had been shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer, Darren Wilson, just five days prior. Francois was one of thousands who took to the streets in cities across the country as part of the National Moment of Silence/Day of Rage. People in Ferguson had not left the streets since Michael Brown’s murder. “I think, throughout the nation, we’re all asking ourselves this question: ‘How did we come here again? How did we find ourselves in this very same space?’” Francois told AlterNet in an interview shortly after the protest. Indeed, how did we?

Undeniably, the death of Michael Brown has erupted onto the national scene in a way that few murders of black and brown people by police have. That itself is remarkable. In the wake of Ferguson, there are many questions that have been bubbling through the country… Why Ferguson? (Where is Ferguson?) Why not New York? Who will be next? The question I have found most troubling is the repeated inquiry by activists, pundits and scholars alike: Will Ferguson be a moment or will it become a movement?

At face value, this might not seem like an inappropriate question to ask. The uprising in Ferguson has shone a vital and painful spotlight on the everyday terror of anti-black violence in our country. Many worry that this attention will be fleeting; they wonder if the organizing in Ferguson will be able spur a more radical transformation of the people, policies and institutions that perpetuate the devaluing of black life.

What I want to call our attention to is a pair of claims that are embedded in the moment vs. movement juxtaposition: first is a claim about how change happens; second is a claim about what counts in American history.

Of the many articles that have been penned in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder, two in particular put a point on the vision of social change swirling around the moment/movement question: educator Josie Pickens’ August 18th article in Ebony magazine, “Ferguson: What’s Respectability Got to Do with It” and historian Jeanne Theoharis’ August 26th piece for MSNBC, “The arc of justice runs through Ferguson.” Both criticize reporting that has portrayed the protesters in Ferguson as disorganized, reckless, even dangerous. Moreover, both call us to examine how a sanitized version of the civil rights movement – stripped of its poor, young and female leadership – undergirds such critiques. In Theoharis’ words, “Such framings memorialize a civil rights movement without young people in the vanguard, without anger, without its longstanding and ongoing critique of the criminal justice system.” Through these fables, we are made to believe that Ferguson must be a moment, because “real movements” do not look like this.

These fables also resign us to a jack-in-the-box approach to social movement history. “Real movements” are past and temporally bounded. A “real movement” pops UP when people make a large (but not too large) demand; it goes DOWN (or is put down) when that demand is met (or is too threatening). It is a thing for the history books. By this account, “real movements” are not only sanitized; they are exceptionalized. And so, too, are the social conditions they seek to address. In this way, we can only ask if Ferguson will become a movement, because we are telling a story of the United States in which there is no continuity of black struggle, much less a need for it.

What power dynamics are at work when the protests in Ferguson are treated like the colorful explosion of the jack-in-the-box? What is at stake in viewing black resistance in such an episodic way? What cannot be seen when it is viewed this way? These questions are at the heart of the #BlackLivesMatter systematic call to action – a call issued in response to the ways in which black lives have been devalued and black suffering has been rendered illegible. In this tradition, I want to call us to a deeper appreciation for the movement being carried forward at Ferguson. To do so, we must commit ourselves to resurrecting events that have systematically been made to vanish from our consciousness. We need to appreciate the often-untold history of black poor people’s movements, as well as the long tradition of black critiques of the everyday rituals of white supremacy. We also need to account for the ways in which our notions of justice and liberation are inflected by religious language and sensibility. This takes us back not simply to the Civil Rights era, nor even to Jim Crow, but rather to the founding of the American republic. It is an uncomfortable history, but it is vital for us to tell it if we are to appreciate what it means to be living into the possibility of justice with the movement still-alive in Ferguson.

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