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Framing a new theological narrative: Ending mass incarceration

Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson

October 22, 2019

“Jesus was an inmate: A Movement to End Mass Incarceration” was a session I attended at this year’s American Baptist Churches Biennial in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The movement to end mass incarceration is a bold and audacious undertaking. However, it is far past time for the body of Christ to step into this movement. Unfortunately, this is not a popular movement for the church or politics, yet a large majority of the poor are drastically and dramatically impacted by mass incarceration.

While my church has a re-entry ministry, I found tools from this session helpful. Most impactful for me was the conversation about framing a theology that shapes a new narrative. This was focused on developing a narrative about ending mass incarceration that does not support or suggest that the current status quo is working. Mass incarceration in America is not fixing the problem of crime. The new narrative begins with this fact. As researchers James Austin and John Keith Irwin note, “The United States has been in an unprecedented imprisonment binge. Between 1980 and 1998, the prison population ballooned from 329,821 to 1,302,019 – a rise of 295 percent. This increase was so great that by 1998, the number of citizens incarcerated in state and federal prisons exceeded or approximated the population of thirteen states and was larger than all of our major cities with the exception of Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia.”[i] America has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. 

As we look at who occupies these prisons, the numbers are startling and disproportionate. American University professor Jeffrey Reiman observes, “The offender at the end of the road in prison is likely to be a member of the lowest social and economic groups in the country.”[ii] In addition, “Although blacks do not make up the majority of the inmates in our jails and prisons, they make up a proportion that far outstrips their proportion in the population.”[iii] These facts speak to a system that claims a solution to crime yet continues struggling with crime while simultaneously profiting from the poor and vulnerable.

The movement to end mass incarceration is a bold and audacious undertaking. However, it is far past time for the body of Christ to step into this movement.

America has been given a narrative that criminals need to be locked up and put away. Yet, the system that is supposed to be just is anything but. And a system that espouses a narrative of reform is grossly ineffective. We have public policies and political discourse shaping a narrative about crime in America. From this current administration to that of Lyndon B. Johnson, the criminal justice system has developed a narrative that crime in America does not pay, yet the criminal justice system continues to spend copious amounts of money on jails and prisons. Those who profit are the wealthy and the poor continue to suffer. Long after many have served their time, they carry with them a scarlet letter. While many have been released from the penal institution, they continue to serve prison sentences with the stigma and records that prevent them from being gainfully employed. Individuals released from prison find reentering society overwhelming. The current narrative of the criminal justice system is strategic, as “… the criminal justice system effectively weeds out the well-to-do, so that at the end of the road in prison, that vast majority of those we find there come from the lower classes. This weeding out process starts before the agents of law enforcement go into action.”[iv]

This weeding out is paraded in public view as actress Felicity Huffman was recently sentenced to just two weeks in prison for “paying $15,000 in a conspiracy to inflate the SAT score of her older daughter.”[v] We cannot deny this when we see how Huffman was treated and catered to in comparison to Kalief Browder. Browder was 16 years of age when he was charged for allegedly stealing a backpack. Since Browder, a young African American male from a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, could not post bail, he was sent to Rikers Island. He spent three years while Huffman was sentenced to a shorter term. Browder was released, but not after having suffered the cruel and dehumanizing treatment at the facility. This treatment traumatized Browder and he died by suicide two years after his release. The narrative concerning mass incarceration needs to be changed.

To change the current narrative, we must frame a theology that shapes a new narrative. This involves reflecting on the gospel of Jesus. This is not a pessimistic romanticizing of Jesus or a passive approach to the criminal justice system. The one believers lift as Lord and savior was falsely accused, arrested as a common criminal, suffered under distressing conditions, judged unjustly, condemned, convicted and crucified. Yet, Jesus did not shy away from being engaged with those whom society rejected. Jesus did not shy away from speaking to the rulers of his day, directing them to hold a mirror up to themselves as they dispensed judgment towards others. This, I believe, is where the work begins. The Church that endeavors to be faithful to the gospel is called on to craft a narrative that speaks of restoration and redemption. 

To change the current narrative on mass incarceration, we must frame a theology that shapes a new narrative. The Church that endeavors to be faithful to the gospel is called on to craft a narrative that speaks of restoration and redemption. 

The criminal justice system is broken. It does not work. To frame a new narrative, the work of the church involves the good news. However, this involves more than simply posturing the gospel. As James 2:17 reads, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” In reference to social justice, the church can help reshape a new narrative by actually getting involved. This includes, but is not limited to, creating ministries that support and advocate for a just criminal justice system. The body of Christ has a mandate from Jesus to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison. Social justice ministries need to be more efficient and effective. This endeavor calls for engaging the legal and political systems and upending current policies that are unjust. To shape a new narrative requires refusing to normalize what currently is and becoming dissatisfied. Austin and Irwin in their book, “It’s About Time,” suggest, “We must turn away from the excessive use of prisons. The current incarceration binge will eventually consume large amounts of tax money, which will be diverted from essential public services such as education, child care, mental health and medical services – the very services that will have a far greater impact on reducing crime than building more prisons.”[vi] This may be audacious, but it would be helpful if seminaries would craft curriculums to help form and equip leaders to challenge the current system and guide ministries in the movement to end mass incarceration.

Ending mass incarceration may sound outrageous to some. Still, it is disgraceful to supplement an unjust system on the backs of the poor and vulnerable, to victimize a class of people because of their social location, and to turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of the wealthy while exaggerating the lesser infractions of the poor, black and brown community. It is insensitive to target specific groups of people for the same crimes as others, while the wealthy continue to get rich. Sentencing black and brown people for the possession of marijuana in a state that has legalized it, while non-black and brown people in the same state can legally sell this product, is unjust. In addition, we cannot continue to support a system that has never worked and is dysfunctional as well as failing, all under the misguided perception that we are being kept safe. I do not think we feel any safer today than we did two decades ago. The current narrative speaks of a system that is doing its best to keep us safe and needs more of our tax dollars to do so. To begin shaping a new narrative, we must begin with the reality that the current system and policies do not work and are not healthy for a respectful and humane society.

The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] James Austin and John Keith Irwin, “It’s About Time: America’s Imprisonment Binge.” 3rd edition. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001) 1.

[ii] Jeffrey Reiman, “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice.” (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1995) 100.

[iii] Ibid. 101-102.

[iv] Ibid. 101.

[v] Karen Weintraub, Joelle Renstrom, and Nick Anderson, “Felicity Huffman gets 14 days in jail in college admission scandal.” The Washington Post. Accessed 9/13/19.

[vi] James Austin and John Keith Irwin, “It’s About Time: America’s Imprisonment Binge,” (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001) 244.

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