Did you know that 2 million people are incarcerated in the US and that we have the greatest incarceration rate I the world? (Prison Policy Iniative)
Recently my family and visited Alcatraz and at the end of the tour they have this exhibit on Mass Incarceration. Pictured here is a visual representation of the largest prison populations in the world. As you can see (sort of I apologize for the angle) not only the largest but several of the largest prisons in the world are here in the US.
Like many of us, my understanding of the US justice and carceral system is ever evolving. I started my career with a brief stint as a prosecutor in Roxbury while I was still in law school. Later, I did some criminal defense work before finally settling into what would become my main practice – immigration. In all of this I saw glimpses of how our system was and was not just. How those with money always fared better and how sometimes the system seemed designed more to confuse and entrap than to actually mete out justice.
I am grateful for the resources available to help me learn more and go deeper in my understanding of how our system is failing so many, how organizations and individuals are advocating for change and how my faith calls me to not only care but act to build a more just system.
One such resource is the book Rethinking Incarceration by Dominique DuBois Gilliard. I read this book several years ago and in conjunction with some other learning (including Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ava Duvernay’s documentary The 13th) it has helped me better understand the injustices of Mass Incarceration and the inequities in our criminal justice system. Rethinking Incarceration has also done something more for me. Because it is written by a pastor with a deep heart for the church it not only chronicles the realties of incarceration, its affects and after affects, but also connects this story to God’s people.
In his introduction Gilliard says that his book “will frame Mass Incarceration theologically, examining the church’s role in its evolution and sustainment while advocating for an alternative, Christocentric way to engage our criminal justice system.” He tells his readers that “it is written for the church” and I am so thankful for this. Although it is hard to learn about the role the church has played, to hear of the practical realties including the racism, classism and violence of the system it is necessary and though unflinching in the telling and unapologetic in the criticism Gilliard offers hope and a way forward for those of us willing to listen and act.
I encourage all of my Christian brothers and sisters to read this book and to do so with an open, prayerful heart and mind. The system is harming so many individuals and communities. People who are vulnerable, marginalized and left behind. We are called to these spaces and I hope we, the church, answer this call with all of the resources God has made available to us.
To close I offer a prayer Gilliard shares in his book:
I pray it awakens the church to the tragic realties of mass incarceration and inspires us to envision and work toward a justice system predicated on reconciliation, restoration and reintegration. (9)