This last April, the violence of prisons and policing has been fully on display. Protests erupted in Minnesota and Chicago after the police killings of 20-year-old Daunte Wright and 13-year-old Adam Toledo — during the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. The police have continually used excessive force when responding to protests.
Meanwhile, the ongoing humanitarian crisis of COVID-19 in prisons became visible on April 4 when those incarcerated in the St. Louis City Justice Center led a protest where they broke windows, started fires, and hung signs out of windows that read, “ Help Us.” That protest was inspired by the failures of the prison system to respond to COVID-19 outbreaks in a humane way. These failures are not unique to the St. Louis City Justice Center but typical of prison systems around the world, especially in the United States.
All during the COVID-19 pandemic, prison officials have been either negligent or blatantly irresponsible in protecting people from getting infected. For example, in California bureaucratic negligence led to an outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, resulting in the deaths of 28 human beings incarcerated in the prison.
The Federal Board of Prisons denied 98 percent of requests for compassionate release for incarcerated people who feared COVID-19 complications due to already poor health. In the twisted world of prisons, even attempts to provide safety from COVID-19 have led to unbearable conditions for incarcerated people. Family visits and educational or religious programming have been suspended in most jails and prisons due to COVID-19. One jail in Washington, D.C., has held its 1500 prisoners in solitary confinement for almost 400 days to prevent COVID-19 infections — solitary confinement, which the United Nations suggests is akin to torture, and those who’ve experienced it describe it as being “buried alive.”
In 1 John 3:15, the writer says, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister becomes a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in them.” Our failure to “have pity on our brothers and sisters in need” facing these inhuman conditions in jails and prisons is tantamount to murder (1 John 3:17).
The horrific conditions in prisons are made possible by the inescapable realities of incarceration. Prisons are secretive, which fosters violence behind closed doors. The retributive impulse of our society to punish those in prison leads to a denial of their human dignity. In Tennessee, for example, while prison officials knew vaccinating incarcerated people was an imperative, because of their risk of being infected by COVID-19, they delayed vaccinations because they were afraid of the public outcry. They had reason to fear, as our society is built to ensure prisoners do not get medical care or the humane treatment they deserve.
Criminalization, incarceration, and exclusion from society construct an underclass of people who are not viewed as deserving of care, love, or community. We are all implicated in the construction of this underclass — because criminalization, incarceration, and exclusion fall disproportionately and, as Michelle Alexander has argued, intentionally, along racialized lines. We are all participants in this violence because it is done on our behalf in the name of “safety” — but not safety for all. Conditions in our prisons — from solitary confinement to the negligent disregard for COVID-19 precautions that led to 34 percent of incarcerated people getting infected, as opposed to 9 percent in the US overall — all of this is state violence, done in our name. Separating parents from their children is another feature of state violence in the U.S. carceral system. Prison Policy Initiative has reported that 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers. The separation of children from parents in the prison system has devastating results on the children, who have not been convicted of anything.
In 1 John 1:8–9, the writer says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What does it look like for U.S. Christians to confess our complicity in the racism and violence inherent in the carceral system?
In the wake of protests last summer, Episcopal Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows wrote a powerful appeal for Christian to stand as witnesses against white supremacy, including that inherent in the U.S. legal system, saying: “I want our church to be that clear” in its opposition to systems of violence against Black and brown people.
I want the church to be that clear, too. I want the church to be clear in its opposition to the white supremacist systems of policing and prisons because those systems are an affront against human dignity.
Not only should Christians be clear about their opposition to this system, but they should also work toward repair.
As Christians, we are called to resist systemic racism and state violence against people who are marginalized. That’s why we support defunding, disarming, and abolishing the U.S. carceral system, including the police.
As Christians, we are called to do for prisoners what we would do for Jesus (Matthew 25:31–46). We would not leave Jesus in a cruel and inhumane prison. That’s why we reject incarceration, which dehumanizes people by turning them into “prisoners” and tormenting them.
As Christians, we are called to love our enemies, forgive as we have been forgiven, and take part in God’s ministry of reconciliation (Matthew 5:44, Ephesians 4:32, 2 Corinthians 5:18). That’s why we seek to address all harm and violence through restorative and transformative justice.
As Christians, we are called to maintain the hope that such alternatives are possible. This hope is not foolish; this hope is grounded in the work that restorative and transformative justice practitioners are already doing. Around the edges of the violence of the state, groups like Creative Interventions, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, Generation Five, Incite! Women of Color against Violence, Common Justice, and many others are building new community-based ways to respond to harm and violence through compassion for both the ones who have hurt and the ones who have been hurt. Accountability depends not on punishment but on making amends, seeking transformation and healing. As Christians, we should rededicate ourselves to learning about and joining this work where it is already occurring.
Ultimately, our Christian hope for a world without prisons rests on the promise of God. Throughout scripture, God promises freedom for prisoners (e.g. Psalm 146, Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:17–21). Also throughout scripture, God promises a just reign of liberation and reconciliation in community (Isaiah 61:4–10, Jeremiah 31:31–34, Matthew 18:12–14).
Look at the suffering and violence promoted by the U.S. carceral system, and ask yourself: Does our current “justice” system represent the reign of God’s justice?
If not, then let us follow Jesus into the coming reign of God. Let us be clear in connecting our Christian commitments of love, hope, and justice to our resistance to criminalization, policing, and incarceration in our society. May we Christians be known for our support of abolition.