Review: Rethinking Incarceration

rethinking incarcerationRethinking IncarcerationDominique Dubois Gilliard. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A call for Christians to address mass incarceration in the United States that considers its pipelines, its history, and proposes alternatives to prison and a focus not merely on punishment but upon restoration.

It is time for Christians to rise up and make a holy interruption to the system of mass incarceration pervading the United State’s criminal justice system. Dominique DuBois Gilliard contends that it is  system that not only dehumanizes the imprisoned, but all of us as a nation. To document the unusual situation that pertains in the U. S., he writes:

While the United States constitutes only 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of its incarcerated populace. Statistically, our nation currently has more people locked up—in jails, prisons, and detention centers—than any other country in the history of the world. We currently have more jails and prisons than degree-granting colleges and universities. In some areas of the country, there are more people living behind bars than on college campuses.

One out of every twenty-five people sentenced to the death penalty are falsely convicted. In many states, pregnant women are shackled to gurneys during their delivery. Thirteen states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults, such that children as young as eight have been tried and sentenced as adults, left vulnerable to trauma and abuse while living among adults in jails and prisons.

Eighty thousand inmates per day are locked in solitary confinement, where they are quarantined in a twelve by seven foot concrete cell (smaller than a standard horse stall), frequently for twenty-three hours a day, and are only allowed outdoor access and human interaction for one hour. This dehumanizing form of “incarceration” is more accurately defined as torture—a slow assault on the dignity of individuals and a strategic disintegration of their body and psyche.

Gilliard retraces the history of how we have gotten here, ground that has been covered in part by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (review), showing how the War on Drugs, and other law and order initiatives have been disproportionately applied in minority communities, and disenfranchised a significant part of the adult population–an extension by other means of efforts to subjugate blacks and other ethnic minorities. What Gilliard adds to this analysis is tracing several other pipelines that have resulted in our mass incarceration crisis: crackdown on immigration offenses, decreased funding for mental health, private prisons and detention centers, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Gilliard then examines the church’s witness. He argues that in addition to supporting conservative “law and order” approaches, he contends that the Protestant church’s atonement theory of penal substitution has perpetuated an emphasis on punishment as a sanctifying influence with little or no emphasis on restoration, nor on alternatives to incarceration. Gilliard does not argue that there should be no penalties for crime and acknowledges that incarceration for some is necessary. Rather, he argues that this one-sided focus on retributive punishment is inadequate in terms of a biblical understanding of justice, which he contends is also restorative, both in terms of perpetrators, and in terms of the relationships violated by their acts.

He argues for four responses by the church:

  1. Prevention services to stop incarceration before it starts.
  2. Ministry with people who are currently incarcerated.
  3. Ministries with the families and loved ones of people who are currently incarcerated.
  4. Re-entry services for the formerly incarcerated.

His concluding chapter spotlights outstanding examples of programs addressing these responses.

I had only one reservation about his otherwise compelling argument. I believe he caricatures the idea of penal substitution, which I would contend actually provides a basis in the cross where Father and Son act together, such that love and justice meet in God’s bearing in God’s self the curse for our sins. Yes, there is penalty, and yes, this act effects restoration of a lost humanity. I believe this doctrine, much maligned in contemporary discussion, actually provides the most powerful warrant for the approach to incarceration he advocates. I will admit that it may be possible that the caricature of this doctrine did shape church attitudes toward incarceration, although I would be interested in a closer look at that contention.

In Matthew 25, prisoners are among “the least of these” for whom we are to care. Mass incarceration is one of the ways systemic racism is perpetuated in our country, which not only is a burden upon ethnic minority communities but upon all of us, not only financially but also spiritually. Gilliard commends ministries that are implementing actions to bring “holy interruptions” to mass incarceration. I would commend two in the Central Ohio community where I live (there are numerous others but I have friends involved in these initiatives) Kairos Prison Ministry and CleanTurn Enterprises. Kairos is a national ministry working both with prisoners in prison, and with their families. CleanTurn has demolition and cleaning services, and a cafe’ in the Columbus Hilltop area that provide opportunities for employment and career development for formerly incarcerated individuals.

For many of us, this is an “out of sight, out of mind” problem (I include myself here). Gilliard reminds us that we wouldn’t have much of the Bible apart from the prophetic witness of many who suffered imprisonment. In Acts, in the history of the early church, and in many parts of the world today, vibrant witness and being incarcerated went hand and hand. As we pray for revival in the church, are we aware that this might be one of the implications of our prayers? At very least, Gilliard’s book invites us to “go to prison” one way or another as part of gospel faithfulness.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

3 thoughts on “Review: Rethinking Incarceration

  1. Thank you for reviewing this important book. One of the most sinful causes of overincarceration is that those accused of minor crimes receive onerous high bail. Unable to pay, they languish in jails, awaiting trial and, as a result, are coerced into pleading guilty for crimes they did not commit. All patriots should demand an end to setting high bail for those accused of non-violent crimes. All patriots should demand an end to for-profit prisons, which require an ever increasing volume of “customers” so that profits are ensured. Our legal system must begin enforcing making a distinction between those who willfully commit crimes and those who injure others by negligence or neglect.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2018 | Bob on Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.