prison reform

The Editors 3-23-2017
Prison Nightmares

Rikers: An American Jail , a documentary film from journalist Bill Moyers, draws on interviews with former detainees at a notorious facility, New York City’s Rikers Island, for insight into the violence and futility of U.S. mass incarceration. Airing on PBS in May, with faith-based viewers’ guide available for download. rikersfilm.org

Not Just a Game

Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography , by Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb, details how faith helped Robinson, the first black baseball player in the major leagues, endure abuse and fight for civil rights, on and off the field. WJK

Mind the Gap

Economist Thomas Piketty’s landmark 2014 book on growing wealth inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is brilliant, but daunting at more than 600 pages. Enter Pocket Piketty, by inequality data specialist Jesper Roine, a portable and accessible introduction to Piketty’s vital and evermore-timely ideas and analysis. OR Books

Love and Dissent

With both love songs and protest anthems such as “Corrupción,” Ani Cordero’s new Latin rock album, Querido Mundo (Dear World), is a full-hearted call to embrace life and social justice in the face of disturbing politics in the U.S. and around the world. anicordero.info

The Editors 12-22-2016
Wherever You Go ...

In Why Am I Here?, by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen and Akin Duzakin, a picture book for ages 5 to 9, a child ponders the many different places she could be: a huge city, an isolated forest, a war zone, fleeing to a strange land. A book that encourages empathy and acknowledges the big questions that kids ask themselves. Eerdmans

Faith for the Struggle

Shannon Daley-Harris, religious affairs adviser for the Children’s Defense Fund, offers scriptural meditations to inspire and sustain advocates and nurturers in Hope for the Future: Answering God’s Call to Justice for Our Children. Includes questions for faithful response. Westminster John Knox

No Easy Road

Activist and artist Anthony Papa writes about the challenges of rebuilding his life after serving 12 years for a nonviolent drug offense, his work to change oppressive drug-sentencing laws, and memories of prison in This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency15yearstolife.com

Life Out of Death

“I did not understand how people changed so much: Some became executioners, others became victims,” writes Holocaust survivor Magda Hollander-Lafon in Four Scraps of Bread, a slim volume of piercing, simple-yet-profound reflections on her journey through hell and back. Notre Dame Press

Lisa Sharon Harper 9-26-2016
woaiss / Shutterstock

woaiss / Shutterstock

TWO WEEKS BEFORE Christmas last year, I stood with 50 other national faith leaders on the banks of the Alabama River in Montgomery, Ala., trying to imagine what it must have been like to stand on that land in 1850, at the height of the black chattel slave trade.

We were embarking on a one-day pilgrimage convened by Sojourners and hosted by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). We were there to understand one thing: the nature of the confinement and control of black bodies in the U.S. from chattel slavery through Jim Crow to mass incarceration.

Congress banned the import of enslaved people in 1808, but it did not ban the slave industry. Slave traders turned inward. Men, women, and children of African descent were sold in the Upper South; chained together with shackles around their feet, wrists, waists, and necks; and marched—often without shoes—over hundreds of miles into the Deep South for sale to farm owners desperate to meet the explosive global demand for cotton after the invention of the cotton gin.

“But walking was too slow and expensive to meet the high demand,” said Bryan Stevenson, founding executive director of EJI, to the faith leaders standing at the mouth of Montgomery’s Commerce Street. Stevenson explained that sales multiplied as transport methods improved. By the 1840s, the Commerce Street port housed a steamboat dock and a train station. Rather than marching 20 people over hundreds of miles, traders could transport hundreds of en-slaved people at a time—quicker and less expensive. Slavery was industry. Even in these early iterations, maximizing profit and lowering the bottom line were of chief concern.

According to a 2013 EJI report, “Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade,” Montgomery’s Commerce Street became one of the most easily accessible points of trade in Alabama by 1860. Slave traders would unload humans from ships and trains at the top of Commerce Street and auction them three blocks away at Court Square. Auctioneers coaxed farm owners to push bids higher until the auctioneer cried “Sold!” Mothers were separated from sons and daughters. Sisters were separated from brothers. And husbands were separated from wives. Humans were forced to fill days with bone-breaking labor, heartache, and absolute acquiescence to the domination of overseers and masters—until death freed them from the clutch of American commerce.

Photo courtesy Free Minds

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM in the United States is gaining momentum with each graphic video showing fatal police abuse. In the aftermath of the many deaths of unarmed black men and women and the city-wide protests that erupted in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, it is not surprising that presidential hopefuls are making bold public statements about the need to change a system that is profoundly unjust, overly punitive, and excessively costly to run.

At the other end of the spectrum, away from TV cameras and political wrangling, activists such as Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor, co-founders of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, are dealing with decades of draconian anti-crime policies that have resulted in mass incarceration rates marked by racial disparities that have had a devastating impact on families and communities.

The numbers speak for themselves. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has nearly 25 percent of its prison population. According to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization working to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, more than 2.2 million Americans are now locked up in prisons and jails across the country—a 500-percent increase over the past 30 years. Furthermore, those who are incarcerated come largely from the most disadvantaged segments of the population.

Phil Haslanger 1-21-2015

Phil Haslanger in the solitary confinement cell. Photo courtesy Phil Haslanger

I started this year in solitary confinement.

It’s not that I am regularly in prison or that I had behaved so badly. I was simply in a mock solitary cell located in the sanctuary of a church. I was only there for an hour. I knew I would be getting out.

But that hour did offer a glimpse into the world of how solitary confinement is used – and abused – in our nation’s prisons. And it offered a glimpse at the reform efforts that are gaining steam all across the country, including in my home state of Wisconsin.

When Kate Edwards, a Buddhist chaplain who has worked in the Wisconsin prison for the past five-and-half years, closed the door behind me, I was alone, but hardly in silence.

Church leaders respond, 50 years later, to King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Jim Wallis interviews Richard Viguerie, a law-and-order conservative, on the death penalty and prison reform.

Jim Wallis 12-08-2010
My life changed when I went to a Christian festival in the UK in the 1990s. The same could happen to you if you come to the Christian music and social justice festival happening in the U.S.
Andrew Wilkes 4-22-2009

A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but an accurate weight is his delight. (Proverbs 11:1)

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