Criminal Justice

Death Does Not Reign

nobeastsofierce / Shutterstock

nobeastsofierce / Shutterstock

POPE FRANCIS called our country to honor the sacredness of all human life. He called on Congress to embrace a consistent ethic of life—to abolish the death penalty. The state killed no one while Francis walked among us. But three days after his departure, blood flowed.

Six people in five states were scheduled to be executed in the U.S. within one week of each other in the beginning of October:

Wednesday, Sept. 30. Kelly Gissendaner, convicted for the orchestration of the 1997 murder of her husband, converted to Christianity while on death row in Georgia. Gissendaner, a respected student of theology, was put to death after three failed Supreme Court appeals.

Wednesday, Sept. 30. Richard Glossip, who is widely believed to be innocent of the 1997 murder-for-hire for which he was convicted, was scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma, but Gov. Mary Fallin issued a stay of execution. Fallin offered the stay not because she believed that Glossip was innocent, but rather because of questions over whether the state possessed the legal drug protocol to put him to death.

Thursday, Oct. 1. Alfredo Prieto was executed in Virginia for the rape and murder of a woman and her boyfriend in 1988. Prieto was believed to be a serial murderer with an IQ below 70, according to Amnesty International. Prieto had an appeal pending when the state killed him.

Friday, Oct. 2. Kimber Edwards was convicted of the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife in 2000, but another man recently confessed to having acted alone. Edwards, who has autism, originally confessed to the crime, but at his trial and ever since he has said he was innocent. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

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Twenty Years of 1 Million or More in Prison: A Reading List

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On Oct. 27, 1994 — 21 years ago today — the U.S. Department of Justice reported that the United States’ prison population had reached over 1 million people. By comparison, that’s the same size as San Jose, Calif.— the tenth biggest city in the US.

Today, the United States’ prison population is over 1.5 million — the size of Philadelphia, Pa., our nation’s fifth largest city.

Yet the size of our prison population — the largest in the world — is only part of the problem. Communities of color and poorer communities are disproportionally sentenced to prison — the result of systemic injustices including income inequality, school-to-prison pipelines, and racial profiling.

We mark many positive anniversaries here at Sojourners, but the work of justice also necessitates recognizing ongoing abuses of human dignity over time. So today, on the grim anniversary of 1 million people housed in our prison system, we choose to remember them and all those still behind bars. Here are ten articles we’re re-reading today about mass incarceration — and how to end it.

The Urgent Hope of Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is at it again — this time in The Atlantic’s newly released October 2015 issue.

In “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Coates wrestles with the dark underside of criminal justice in the United States. As he is apt to do, Coates effortlessly teases out the connections between our nation’s present situation — unimaginably high rates of incarceration, particularly among black Americans — and our historical plundering of the black community.  Conceptually nuanced, historically rigorous, and artfully crafted, “Family” is a success on every level. 

Yet soon after Coates’ piece was published, Thabiti Anyabwile issued a cogent response decrying Coates’ apparent hopelessness. Anyabwile’s response highlighted fundamental differences in the two writers’ worldviews. Physical bodies and the violence they endure, not theologies, are afforded primacy of place in Coates’ analyses.

In this sense, Anyabwile serves as an interesting counterweight to Coates. A pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and council member with The Gospel Coalition, Anyabwile is unabashedly Christian. The “comforting narrative of divine law,” eschewed so often by Coates, is one in which Christians like Anyabwile and myself regularly take solace.

50 Prison Inmates Tour Vatican Gardens, Sistine Chapel

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Fifty inmates from a Rome jail were given a private tour of the Vatican Museums on Sept. 13, setting the tone for Pope Francis’ visit to a U.S. prison later this month and emphasizing his concern for people on the margins.

The group from the Rebibbia prison visited the Vatican Gardens and St. Peter’s Basilica, before being given a private tour through the Vatican Museums by Museums Director Antonio Paolucci.

Once the inmates reached the Sistine Chapel, best known for its world-famous Michelangelo’s fresco, the Vatican allowed the prisoners to listen in to the pope’s midday Angelus prayer.

President Obama Should Visit Solitary Confinement Cell to See True Suffering

Image via  UzFoto/Shutterstock

Image via  /Shutterstock

The critique President Obama articulated of solitary confinement in this week’s speech to the NAACP on criminal justice is truly remarkable. Never before has this president, or any president, spoken about the mistreatment of people in U.S. prisons with such clarity and compassion.

When he spoke, the president echoed what people of faith across the country have advocated for years: Solitary confinement is an affront to our deeply held moral convictions.

Directing the attorney general to review solitary confinement is exactly what is needed to begin the process of ending this immoral practice. Faith leaders hope that with Obama’s scheduled visit to the Federal Correctional Institution El Reno in Oklahoma on July 16, he will ask to see the solitary confinement section. If the president misses a chance to see such a unit, he, and thus the nation, will develop an inaccurate picture of the true suffering and neglect that lie deep inside our U.S. prison system.

When the president named solitary confinement as one of those prison conditions "that have no place in any civilized country," he made a statement of values loud and clear — that the inherent human dignity of people does not end at the prison gates.

Demonic Drums, Transgender Housing, and 8 Other Quotables from Our June Issue

Image via tovovan/

Image via tovovan/

It’s hard to overlook the peppy pink pig who appeared on the cover of our June issue, but maybe you missed the lyrical beauty of Senior Associate Editor Julie Polter’s review of Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, or Eboo Patel’s surprising lesson on what Thomas Jefferson’s 1764 copy of Islam’s holy book can tell us about the 2016 elections. The June issue taught us how to stop funding what we hate, how a housing-first model saved the life of a homeless transgender woman, and how prison guards are earning degrees alongside inmates.

Below, read our top 10 quotes from the June 2015 issue of Sojourners.

Faith Leaders Nationwide Call for Stay in Atlanta Woman's Execution, Scheduled Tonight

A woman in prison. Image courtesy littlesam/

A woman in prison. Image courtesy littlesam/

It is a great and terrible irony that our country’s correctional system does not often allow for or take much pride in perpetrators’ self-correction.

Yet to the degree that transformation within the system is possible, such appears to have happened for Kelly Gissendaner. The 46-year-old woman was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of her then-husband, Doug. It is well-documented that her accomplice and then-boyfriend committed the act — he is sentenced to life, with a chance at parol.

Gissendaner faces excecution tonight at 7 p.m. EST.

If carried through, it will be the first time since 1976 that the state of Georgia will execute an individual who was not the person physically using violence in the crime.

Gissendaner’s case — that of a person guilty of murder whose profound internal transformation while in prison has led to a contemplative life of studying theology, mentoring at-risk youth, offering pastoral care to fellow inmates, and expressing full and sincere remorse for her actions — calls into stark question whether our criminal justice system, and specifically the state's use of the death penalty, honestly allows for the possibility for redemption.

The 10 Ferguson Stories You Need to See

Editor’s Note: On Monday night, it was announced that a grand jury in St. Louis County found no probable cause to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson on any of five possible counts. Throughout the country, protests have erupted. For this week’s edition of the Weekly Wrap, we wanted to offer you the 10 most important things you should see, read, digest to understand the situation. We pray for peace.

1. Letter From Birmingham Jail
by Martin Luther King Jr. Far more relevant than it should be. Print it out. Write on it. Pray through it. "In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities."

2. PHOTOS: Scenes From Ferguson — and Beyond
Slate compiled these chilling shots from protests in Ferguson, New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and more.

3. A Sad Night for America
“It is time to right the unacceptable wrong of black lives being worth less than white lives in our criminal justice system." our criminal justice system."