We Listen to Jesus — Until He Says ‘Set the Prisoner Free’ | Sojourners

We Listen to Jesus — Until He Says ‘Set the Prisoner Free’

Photo courtesy Joe Ingle. Graphic by Candace Sanders/Sojourners

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

Anyone who has spent even a second in a prison knows it’s hell. Growing up in church, I noticed people who participated in the church’s prison ministry were both respected and feared. Respected because they were doing what the writer of Hebrews admonishes believers to do regarding those in chains: Remember them as though you were in prison with them (13:3). But they were feared because many of them had actually been in prison. Rather than the prison system or the criminal legal system being classified as barbaric, it was the prisoners who were typically understood to be barbarians.

Joe Ingle has spent a lot of time in prison. Ingle is a writer and death row minister who has been active in prison ministry since the ’70s. A native of North Carolina and a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, Ingle has dedicated his life to being present with and advocating for the 1.9 million people incarcerated in the U.S., especially the more than 2,300 incarcerated people on death row.

His new book, Too Close to the Flame, is an account of his experiences over the course of his ministry; it’s also a searing indictment of the criminal legal system in the United States. Throughout the book, Ingle weaves together political and theological analysis with personal stories from people who are incarcerated.

I sat down to speak with Ingle about his book, the prison system, death row, and the lessons he’s learned from those in chains.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Tell me how you got involved in ministering to prisoners.

Joe Ingle: So, I was a North Carolina boy through and through until I moved to New York.

Living and working in East Harlem was a culture shock to me, being a white boy up from the South […] But what a wonderful experience. It really changed my life completely. At the East Harlem Urban Year program that Bill Weber set up, you would spend 20 hours a week in a work experience. The idea being your theology emerged from your work, your meetings with your other colleagues in the East Harlem Urban Year, and your [seminary] classes.

And that’s what really attracted me about coming to New York. My senior year there […] Attica, a rebellion in an upstate New York prison, happened in the fall of ’71. As I watched that on my little black-and-white TV in my tenement apartment, I realized, one, I know nothing about prisons and jails; two, my friends and neighbors are dealing with cops and district attorneys and jails all the time; three, I want to find out what’s going on.

I went up to the Bronx House of Detention. I was oriented, had a little chaplain’s badge, and began my visits. I’ll just describe that first visit, because it was so transformative in terms of personal insight. I get up there, I take the elevator up, I get off the elevator, come to the door, and the guard lets me in. Now remember, I’ve never been in a prison or a jail. [The guard] opens that door and there’s this huge cage. It takes me a minute to realize that this is the cell block. He walks me down the top of the block and gets to the corner and gestures to this room over to the left and says, “This is where we do your interviews. We have clergy and lawyer interviews in here.” I’m a naive seminary student, right? I look at this guy, I look at the guys in the cell block, and I think, “Why don’t you let me in here with these guys, and I’ll talk to them.” That guard looked at me, shrugged, opened up that door, and I stepped across the threshold.

Now, in my mind — I hadn’t really checked it out visually — I [imagined I] would step into the cell block and all the individual cell doors would be closed, and I would go down and introduce myself to each guy. But once I stepped across the threshold, I realized each one of those doors was open.

[The guard] slammed that door behind me. He slammed it. He really enjoyed that. I can still feel the shutter and I’m standing there thinking, “Oh my God, I’m in here with these animals.” [Because] that’s what we’re taught: to regard people in prison as less than who we are. As I’m having this thought, this guy in the first bunk looks up and says, “Man, what are you doing in here?”

He gets up, introduces himself, shakes my hand. I said, “I’m going to come visit you guys for a year. I don’t have a lot to offer except my presence.” He said, “Let me introduce you to everybody.” I spent the year learning from those 44 men.

This is what I learned: They were all in a jail because they couldn’t post bail. Everybody’s African American or Puerto Rican except one white guy. They were happy to have someone to visit them, even if the person had no resources. They were just happy to have someone present with them. That year turned my world upside down.

So when I came back South, I wanted to follow some path that would relate with my ordination. I was a UCC minister at this point. And so I came to Nashville and there was a fellow here named Will Campbell who was a bootleg Baptist preacher. Very active in Civil Rights. He and [Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.] were good friends. He was the only white guy at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He had set up something called Southern Prison Ministry, and so Tony Dunbar and I did that, and then we contacted people throughout the South.

[We] set up an organization called the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons. Our mission: Fight mass incarceration and the death penalty. And that’s what we did.

How did you specifically become a minister for people on death row?

When I was ordained in January of ’73 in the UCC at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Richmond, Va., I didn’t have a call to a church at that point. So I had that ordination and I was trying to figure out what to do with it, and the Southern Prison Ministry gave me the way of doing it. When you look back on it, there’s a certain amount of chutzpah involved in this because we were all young people in the early ’70s, up against long odds, and we assumed that we should be listened to, and we just assumed that we could get into these prisons, meet with governors, and just assumed a lot of things.

Interestingly enough, most of that happened. Now I’ve done it for so long and people around here know me even on the other side of the fence.

I [recently] just came through a very painful situation: A man on death row whom I’ve worked with since [the late ’80s] Ron Cauthern, was able to get a new sentencing hearing [in 2013]. Because of all the programs we’d established on death row here, he’d taken mediation and received his GED and classes from Vanderbilt Divinity School, a class from Vanderbilt Law School, and Lipscomb University — done a lot of work. When he had his new sentence hearing, the judge found him totally rehabilitated and gave him a parolable sentence, which was wonderful.

In November, he called me saying he’s got stage four cancer.

We met with the warden to begin the medical furlough process to get him out of there so he could die with peace and dignity. And it was a fight. For everything. I finally had to get a state senator, Jeff Yarbro, to go see him at Bledsoe Prison.

After Jeff went up there on Saturday, bless his heart, that jolted them into moving Ron down here where we could have access to him and we could try to help him. I’m talking to him on the phone every day. He’s in acute pain. They’re not giving him anything. It was a nightmare. He comes here on a Monday to special needs, which this “special needs” facility is a joke. No prisoner wants to go to special needs. If you’ve ever read Catch-22, [then you know that] the name of something is actually the opposite of what it is. So “special needs” means they’re not doing anything for you. But he gets here on a Monday, I go out to see him on Tuesday. The warden meets me at the door. The associate warden was there. They had a little retinue of followers. They escorted me up through the prison “palliative care” unit.

Now my wife’s nurse practitioner … she told me, “They’re not giving Ron the right meds. You need to advocate for this.” [In the facility, the doctor] tells me all he’s doing for Ron. He gets to the end of his litany and I said, “So basically you’re giving him Lortab for cancer pain?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “That’s not going to get it. My wife is an oncology hematology nurse practitioner. She says he needs to be at least on morphine. He’s in excruciating pain.” That guy blinked at me. Nobody ever talked to him like that. So the warden said, “Come on Joe, let’s go down the hall to see Ron.”

So we go down the hall and as I’m walking down the hall, one of the nurses calls out, “We’ll have the morphine tomorrow.” I just shook my head. I have my visit, hold Ron’s hand, and we pray. I love this man. We’ve been through so much and he is in a lot of pain, but at least he can talk.

That story reiterates something you emphasize in Too Close to the Flame: You want the reader to feel the barbarism of the U.S. criminal legal system. Tell me a little bit about why you wanted to bring that to the fore for the reader.

Because we, in the United States, are by and large ignorant of all of this. So this book is a keyhole for someone to peer through and see a whole system. [We’re] talking about [nearly 2 million] people incarcerated. In your everyday business, you don’t think about any of this stuff. You have no way of knowing the barbarism.

By telling the story of people I interact with, like Ron Cauthern, you come to know them as human beings. They are all children of God, just like we are. Once you lose sight of that, you can do anything to them. And believe me, anything is done to them.

It’s really important for people to understand that these are our brothers and sisters. When Jesus gave us a little talk in his hometown in Nazareth, Luke 4:18, and read Isaiah 61, and they all said, “Oh yeah, that’s great. Isaiah 61, we’re all for that.” And then he says, “And today it is fulfilled in your hearing.” [But later] they weren’t all for that, because he’s talking about freeing the prisoners and restoring sight to the blind, and they tried to kill him. It’s the same way now. People don’t want to see it. They don’t want to free prisoners. They don’t want to work with prisoners. They don’t see them as human beings.

Why do you think it’s important to show people that restorative justice is the correct way to go, especially in contradiction to our current focus on punitive justice?

So retributive justice is based on the theory that, when you come into court, you have an offender, a defender defending the offender, and a prosecutor [and] somehow, in that match of wills and talents, the truth is supposed to come out. Problem is this: The person who’s charged with a crime [often] has no money. This person representing the state, they have a lot of resources. This is a stacked deck from the get-go.

Restorative justice is a volunteer process where the victim and offender come together with a trained facilitator after they’ve had individual meetings with the facilitator. It’s a victim-driven process. The victim gets to say what she wants, what she needs, how she’s hurt, etc. The [offender] listens and then responds. Usually, what happens is communication and understanding, and out of that process, the victim comes away having her feelings heard, her fears heard, her needs met. And, if it’s appropriate, the victim [asks for] monetary restoration, then if the offender is able to do that, they do. But they work it out between them with the facilitator. This is a whole different way of doing things. And fortunately here in Nashville, in juvenile court, we have a juvenile court judge who is really emphasizing this and it’s a wonderful success.

How do you avoid succumbing to the pit of despair? Do you find that it helps to write about it?

I’m reinventing myself. As my trauma therapist says, “Prison’s a trigger. You can’t go out there for a while.” So, I can meet with Department of Corrections officials. I can get the guy’s needs met elsewhere.

I took the Episcopal bishop, a priest, and another guy involved in death row ministry to meet with senior Department of Corrections officials in December of 2023 to work out some issues because the new warden had overreacted. I’m not at a point now that I can go out [to the prisons]. But I can do stuff like [meet corrections officials and write books].

One of the greatest philosophical and theological questions was asked by the late Mr. Fred Rogers: What do you do with the mad that you feel?

The book is called Too Close to the Flame for a reason. I got too close to the flame, and I wish I could give you a clear answer [but] I haven’t worked it out. To me, prayer is important; quiet is important; working in my 200 blueberry bushes is important. So finding those things and building them in my life is really critical. As my therapist says, “I don’t want you in any kind of controversy. I don’t want you arguing with anybody. You are healing. That’s all you’re doing.” And so, that’s what I’m trying to do. And it’s a struggle.

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