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.

Review: Just Mercy

just mercy

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014.

Summary: A narrative of the author’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative, representing death row inmates and other prisoners–people of color, the indigent, mentally impaired, and children–not always served well by our justice system.

Bryan Stevenson, a young black man from a poor community in Delaware, was on the fast track to a successful legal career as a Harvard Law student. All that changed after an internship in Georgia with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC), working with death row inmates, discovering that often one of his greatest gifts to them was simply listening to their stories. After graduation, he returned to work with the SPDC. One of the first cases, that he carried over into the new organization he eventually founded was to represent death row inmate Walter McMillian.

His investigation of McMillian’s case revealed a travesty of justice. McMillian was arrested months after the murder of a young woman killed at a dry cleaners. The main “witness” for the prosecution was mixed up in bad dealings with a white woman with whom McMillian, a black man, had made the mistake of having an affair. Ralph Myers, the witness, could not pick out McMillian and McMillian, in fact, had never met Myers. He was accused of forcing Myers to drive him to the cleaners in his “low rider” truck, where he murdered the woman. McMillian’s truck was only modified into a “low rider” six months after the murder. At the time of the murder, McMillian was at a family gathering miles away, corroborated by numerous family and friends. Nevertheless, he was found guilty. Because of a quirk in Alabama law, the judge reversed the jury recommendation, and sentenced him to be executed on Alabama’s electric chair.

Much of the book is Stevenson’s account of his efforts to appeal this verdict. In doing so, he encounters death threats, and a pattern of concealment of exculpatory evidence, including evidence that Myers’ testimony was coerced by the state. As you read, you find yourself shaking your head at the resistance of the justice system to admit its error, and do the right thing, and in fact the efforts of law enforcement and prosecution to send a man to death who clearly could not have committed the crime. His only crimes were being poor, black, and offending social norms.

Interwoven with the story of Walter McMillian are the stories of many others. He recounts the growth of the new organization he formed, the Equal Justice Initiative, not only in representing death row inmates but other indigent and mentally impaired clients, including those sentenced as adults while children. Often, these clients had lacked the resources for good legal representation that would have led to lesser charges, juvenile rather than adult sentencing, or even provision of mental health care that was needed. He notes the great cost society bears for all of this, even while prison privatization brings a windfall of profit to a relative few. He observes:

One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.

“. . . Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.

Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades in prison. We’ve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment” (p. 15).

Stevenson is not denying that in many cases crimes were committed. Rather, his contention is that justice has neither been equal, nor has there been mercy. In many cases, the race, economic status, and mental capacity of defendants deprives them of good legal representation, even while law enforcement and prosecutorial bias makes convictions all but inevitable, and often for far longer terms than crimes may warrant. Furthermore, given some of the egregious errors in capital cases that result in the innocent being sentenced to death, and in many cases executed, Stevenson raises the question, “Do we deserve to kill” (italics are the author’s).

This is not an easy book to read. Stevenson describes a world different from my own experience. I’ve served on juries and been impressed with the care given to instruct us on “innocent until proven guilty.” I know people in law enforcement and prosecutors who are honorable people. And yet, I consider the evidence Stevenson and others like Michelle Alexander present, and realize that the world I have experienced is light years away from the experience of some of our fellow citizens. In practice, we do not afford equal protection under the law for all of our citizens, at least not in all places around our country. We must ask if long prison sentences and mass incarceration of non-violent offenders really makes sense.

There is a lot of talk about American greatness going around. Our system of justice, at its best is, I believe, one of the great things about our country. When we pledge allegiance to the flag, we conclude with the words “with liberty and justice for all.” It seems to me that if we love the flag, and the country that flag stands for, then we cannot ignore cries for justice like the ones in this book. It is what we have pledged ourselves to.

Just Mercy is the 2017 Buckeye Book Community selection. Seven thousand first year students at The Ohio State University have received and are discussing this book. The author will speak on campus Thursday, October 26, 2017.