Christians & Prisoners
This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith.
This morning, as I was driving to work, I was listening to NPR and heard a powerful story about advocates working to change the incarceration laws in our country, particularly as they relate to juveniles. As a part of that conversation, they also discussed issues surrounding the practice of solitary confinement. In our country’s penal system one out of every five inmates are put in solitary confinement at some time during their period of incarceration. This is a far higher rate than anywhere else in the world and is something that the United Nations has called out as a profound human rights issue.
All of this broke my heart, thinking of the mental pain and trauma these inmates are put through. And it got me thinking of the history of the Christian church when it comes to prisons, a history that is very different than what Christians assume today. So, this week I’d like to break the myth of Christians and the prison system.
You see, something fundamentally shifted in our country in the 80s and 90s. After the turn of the twentieth century, practices like solitary confinement were seen as unethical and cruel and so they were phased out. But the “tough on crime” and “law and order” movement that began in the 60s and reached a crescendo in the 80s and 90s fundamentally changed our criminal justice system, the way Christians think about all of this—and none of this for the better.
First off, we need to remember that the first person to campaign on a “law and order” platform was Alabama governor George Wallace, who used this phrase as a racist dog whistle in his 1968 campaign. Nixon transformed the phrase into a message that sought to discredit Democrats, insisting that they were soft on crime, they responsible for riots… riots at the time that were against significant racialized violence by the police.
Yes, this playbook has been around for a while. And, given the rise of the religious right at the same time, the “law and order” mentality also began to pervade churches as well.
The result of the policies that came out of this movement is that the number of prisoners tripled in fourteen years, from 500,000 in 1980 to 1.5 million in 1994. The United States now has both the largest prison population in the world and the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world at a cost of $81 billion dollars annually to taxpayers.
But there is the human cost as well. Crime rates in New York City dropped under the “law and order” policies of then mayor Rudy Giuliani but reports of police brutality increased significantly. Whole lives have been lost, and recidivism rates have actually increased. And all of this is not really making us people safer. After all, half of all incarcerated people in state jurisdiction are in prison for non-violent offenses. At the federal level, nearly half of all those incarcerated are in prison due to drug offenses.
And the Christian church has said very little on this issue, which is has gotten worse and worse. This is a tremendous break from tradition.
After all, one of the hallmarks of the Messiah in the book of Isaiah was that the Messiah would “proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,” a promise Jesus said in Luke was made manifest in his own ministry. Jesus told us in Matthew 25 that when we visit those in prison, we visit Jesus himself. In Hebrews 13, we are told to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them.”
When Constantine made Christianity legal in the 4th century, he also began a reform of the Roman system of imprisonment. St. Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century took up the cause of continuing reform for how those in prison were treated, arguing that criminal punishment should aim for moral and spiritual rehabilitation of the criminal. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was Christians who led the work of reforming the prison system in England and the United States. And much of that reform was, ironically enough, seeking to get rid of practices like solitary confinement. Practices which are now so pervasive with Christians saying nary a word.
It is time for Christians to repudiate the “tough on crime” mentality of the late twentieth century and return to our heritage of advocacy for the incarcerated. It should be particularly important because 55% of those incarcerated are Christians, they are our siblings in Christ. But even for those who are not Christians, they still are humans with the image of God on their soul. Our justice system should be working for their rehabilitation and their healing.
Now I know it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and like there is nothing you, as an individual, can do as a response to all of this, but that’s not true. You can make a difference. You can raise these issues with those in your social groups. You can make it a part of your discernment when it’s time to vote, pressing politicians for reform.
And, if you’re local to West Michigan, you can do a search online for an organization called “Humanity for Prisoners.” This is the only organization in our state doing one-on-one advocacy work among the incarcerated. I used to serve on their board and know the work that they do is profoundly important and is changing lives every day. Whether it is contributing financially to the work of HfP or contributing your time, there is much to be done. You can find out more about them at humanityforprisoners.org.
Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.