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The complexity of the prison industrial complex

Union Presbyterian Seminary webinar looks at ways the church can help set the captives free

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Last week’s webinar was sponsored by two centers that are part of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

LOUISVILLE — After three experts on the topic of what’s known as the prison industrial complex had their say during a 90-minute webinar last week, Dr. Rodney Sadler summed up their critique and ideas with this sentence: “It’s almost like you’ve said we ought to take this faith we say we believe seriously.”

Sadler, Associate Professor of Bible and director of the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation at Union Presbyterian Seminary, hosted and moderated the “Just Talk, Talk Just” online discussion by panelists including:

Statistics on the incarceration of African Americans are grim. According to Sadler, 1 in 9 African American men is currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system. One in three born since 2000 will spend some time in jail. According to Fox, 4 in 5 incarcerated Black women are mothers, most of them single parents.

“And we forget the caregiver like the grandmother, who now has additional responsibilities,” Fox said. The caregiver might be facing financial or health downturns, “but they feel obliged, and they can be resentful,” Fox said.

But a chief concern remains separation between parent and child. We lament that children are separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border, “and I see that same separation every weekend” at prisons and jails where Fox ministers. “Toddlers are crying because they have no idea what’s going on. Mothers are traumatized again, or they’re having babies while they’re incarcerated. It’s heart-wrenching for me.”

Sinclair expressed “delight” that faith communities are beginning to hold conversation on the prison industrial complex, which she called a societal problem.

Dr. Charlene Sinclair

“Why do we incarcerate so many people at such an astounding rate?” Sinclair asked. “Are we satisfied with having punishment be our first mechanism of relief?” for society’s concern over public safety.

One metric often overlooked, according to Smith Robert, is the number of crimes for which women are incarcerated that can be labeled “survival crimes,” such as stealing diapers or formula for one’s baby.

“It’s a grave injustice to criminalize mothers who are only trying to survive,” Smith Robert said. “Rather than provide the resources these mothers need to survive, our first response is punishment. That’s a moral failing in our society.”

When Black women are portrayed by politicians or editorial writers as cheaters, welfare queens or bad mothers, “these controlling images impact policies that have punitive consequences for Black women,” Smith Robert said. Most media reports portray white women who are incarcerated as “rehabilitating good mothers” who are “helpless,” she said.

We’ve talked about “the criminalization of Blackness,” Sadler told the panelists. How about poverty?

“The criminalization of poverty reveals a lot about America’s value system,” Smith Robert said. To combat the continuing tragedy that is the nation’s cash bail system, churches “can donate some of their tithes and offerings to bail funds, especially for mothers … There are churches doing the work.”

People in faith communities may believe in releasing the captives, Sinclair said, “but what are we releasing them to? As people of faith, we have to figure that out. If we think all we need to do is pray a little bit and tithe a little bit, then I’m scared for my grandkids.”

The stakes are high, Smith Robert said, “for the church to redress this.”

Sadler then had this discussion point for the panel: “Even if we solve mass incarceration tomorrow, we are letting people out into a system that’s equally damaging, equally corrosive.”

the Rev. Linda Fox

Fox said the most successful re-entry programs for those approaching release from prison are “directed at men, not women. Support is the key, and that’s where the church comes in.” Practical support mechanisms include help figuring out how to use everything from a smart phone to the city’s transportation system. “They need help,” Fox said, “and someone in the church can help them navigate the system.”

Sadler passed along these questions to the panel: The Black church has long been known as an organization of community development. Why hasn’t it taken a larger role addressing mass incarceration? How do we wake up this sleeping giant?

Fox called it “a simple matter of education.” When she shares what’s going in behind bars, “light bulbs turn on” in the minds of churchgoers. “I think we are the ones to educate those in the Black church to be sensitized about what’s happening.”

“It begins with our understanding of who Jesus is and was,” Smith Robert said. “We all know someone who was impacted, and we have all fallen short. It’s a pervasive problem, and it’s everyone’s problem.”

“At moments we have found a sweet spot,” Sinclair said, “but we haven’t married them into a movement that’s powerful enough to change things. We need to praise dance Blackness” because “our very being is where God resides. We need the power to deal with the fundamental issues that prevent Black life from thriving.”

It’s also important, Fox said, to look at biblical texts “through the lens of the ones who are being incarcerated. I think the church needs to get its act together. We prepare missionaries so they won’t offend in another country,” and the same sensitivity is needed among people in the pews who work with the incarcerated. “We need to come alongside like the Holy Spirit, to help and not hinder.”

“Do we really believe,” Sinclair asked, “that every human being is a god-awful sinner who will end up in prison? If we don’t, we need to go behind the veil to understand why they did what they had to do to survive. What does that tell us about what we value?”

The cost of incarceration, Sinclair said, is “money taken away from schools and mental health institutions. There are ways society is better served by putting our resources toward human thriving.”

“What does it really mean,” Fox wondered, “to love others as we love ourselves? Are we prepared to pay the cost to do that?” Fox called that “a collective and an individual question that has to be answered.”

the Rev. Dr. Nikia Smith Robert

Smith Robert said she’s “often troubled by notions of forgiveness, which often comes with cheap grace. There has to be reconciliation that takes place on a systemic level. I want to be mindful of people harmed by violence. It’s important for them to feel they get some kind of acknowledgement of the harm caused.”

While suffering on the cross, Jesus extended forgiveness to a penitent thief, she said. “Jesus doesn’t see a criminal. Jesus sees someone restored to the image of God, someone who’s worthy.”

“How can we rethink forgiveness beyond the individual act, although that’s important, with a social gesture that results in a reconciliation of the beloved community?” Smith Robert asked.

Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr.

Finally, Sadler asked panelists this: What would a more just system look like?

Churches might start with “assessing their theologies and how they do harm” by “shaming and passing judgment,” Smith Robert said, “redressing those theologies and replacing them with liberative interventions.” Congregations can utilize the professional abilities of their members and friends, including lawyers and social workers, and can keep clothing on hand to distribute to those formerly incarcerated to wear to a job interview.

“My vision for a more just world,” Smith Robert said, “begins with the church’s leadership to lead civic engagement in the larger society.”

“There are so many things I wish for and hope for, so many days that I am overwhelmed by what I encounter,” Fox said. She sometimes feels like the mythical child on the beach throwing starfish back into the surf, who noted to a passing cynic that the child’s action “made a difference for that starfish.”

“I have been concentrating on one at a time,” Fox said. “I wish I could do more, but it will make a difference for this one, who might have the impetus to one day do a great thing.”

Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation and the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership sponsored last week’s panel discussion on the prison industrial complex. Watch it here.

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