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Op-Ed: A Christian Case for Prison Abolition

Op-Ed: A Christian Case for Prison Abolition

Editor’s Note: The following is an op-ed written in 2019 from Catharine Grainge, a graduate from Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law and a public defender with the Defenders Association of Philadelphia.

I am a pastor’s kid, raised in the Church. My parents are the true-believer type—showing us how to live out our faith in every aspect of our lives. Not only were we taught the Bible in church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, but our dinner table conversations were full of catechism questions, dogma, and philosophical theology. After we were homeschooled, we were sent to private Christian schools. No dating, no secular music, no cable; modest clothing and modest lifestyles; bible study, youth group, Summer VBS; and missions trips to share the love of Jesus. You get it.

I don’t believe all that I once did. While I—like many—have had to find healing from the legalism and self-righteousness that can run deep in the Church, my understanding of grace, mercy and redemption first came from Jesus on the cross. And I believe that it was those concepts that gave me the framework to understand and to join the ranks of some of the most amazing people—prison abolitionists.

So, what is prison abolition? Surely, I do not mean to say that we should abolish all prisons.

Actually, I do. But I’ll tell you a little bit about how I got here.

My journey toward becoming a prison abolitionist began with an understanding of how slavery is connected to the criminal legal system. After slavery was abolished in 1865, we see an uptick in the number of prisons in this country. Some plantations turned directly into prisons (google “Angola, Louisiana”) and people incarcerated there, often in the form of convict-leasing, were forced to pick cotton, again. Explicitly racist laws referred to as “Black Codes” and the rise of Jim Crow segregation created a world where black people were hyper-criminalized and where process in the courts was just a superficial display—if they made it that far (lynching by white mobs was a prevalent form of racial terror between 1877 and 1950).

Starting in the 1960s, tough-on-crime rhetoric was utilized by Republican and Democratic politicians alike. In 1971, our own president declared a war on drugs—survivors of which still fill our jails and prisons. After 9/11, police departments became more militarized than ever, often receiving funding or weaponry based upon the number of arrests made. Today, we have the world’s highest rate of incarceration: 716 per 100,000, 2.3 million people. Our probation and parole numbers are far greater. Black people are incarcerated at a rate five times that of white people. Racist laws and systems (and the racism written on our hearts) have worked in a plethora of ways to dehumanize, segregate, disenfranchise, criminalize, and otherwise oppress black people.

My friend Jose, who is serving a life sentence in California, explained it like this: the 13th Amendment, which was passed at the end of the Civil War, was enacted to abolish slavery. But there is a catch literally written into the amendment: slavery is permitted in prison. Jose recently reasoned: “I guess that’s what they mean when they say ‘orange is the new black.’”

I think it is important to note that it is also very different—people who are forced to work in prison have arguably caused harm, enslaved people did not. Enslaved people were kidnapped from their country and culture; the growing number of immigrants in our prisons (“detention centers”) were not kidnapped—although we can point to US intervention in their home-countries as one of the reasons for their need to flee. I could go on: it’s different. But my point is to show that the dehumanization and profit practices so prevalent in the slavery era have been manifested in this era of mass incarceration.

Another part of this journey has been my growth in understanding why people commit crimes, and thus better understanding what we need to do in order to prevent them. Angela Davis talks about prison abolition in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?. Her argument largely focuses on what prisons cannot do for us. She said:

The prison…functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs—it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.

If you can understand crime not as an issue of evil people doing evil things, but rather people going through life with a lack of support, a lack of resources, systemic oppression, etc., it becomes easier to recognize that prison is where we throw away the people we have failed.

I have had enough of these conversations to know what you might be itching to ask me at this point—but what about the serial killers, psychopaths, rapists, and child molesters? For one, look at the President, look at Congress, look at the Supreme Court, look at our college campuses; hopefully, I am not the first to point out to you that we already live in a world where people who have committed that sort of harm are not locked away in prison.

More importantly, there are other ways to hold accountable people who cause horrible harm; and there are ways to prevent that harm from happening in the first place. Ways that might get us closer to justice for the people who have been harmed and ways that might better “reform” or heal the people who have done the harming. The radical act of imagining a criminal justice system without prisons cannot be severed from a movement to create systemic change in our education, healthcare, policing, economic, and political systems.

It’s hard to imagine what this might look like because we have never lived in a world without prison. I have some ideas, but let’s just get through the rest of this and then we can dream it up together.

Disclaimer: This was not an extensive explanation of prison abolition at all. It was an overview of the arguments that I find most convincing. If you need/want more, take a look at this guide my friend created.

Okay, so let’s get into the Jesus stuff. 

You’ve heard of Jonah, I assume? Thanks to some deep sea transportation, Jonah eventually made it to Nineveh and delivered this message: if the people of Nineveh do not turn from their evil ways, destruction will come quickly. And it worked! Jonah 3 tells us that when the king of Nineveh heard Jonah’s message, he repented and told his people to do the same.

But in a chapter titled “Jonah’s Anger and the Lord’s Compassion” (Jonah 4), Jonah has a really funny and melodramatic conversation with God.

Jonah: did I not tell you this would happen? You are so darn gracious and forgiving, I knew you would save them. Just kill me now.

That day, God sent a plant to grow above Jonah so that he could have some shade as he waited and hoped for the destruction of the city below him. However, within 24 hours, God sent a worm to destroy that same plant. He also ensured that it was a sunny day with a scorching wind. Jonah, in the midst of his heat-stroke, again tells God that it is better for him to die than to live.

God: You feel upset because you lost a thing that you can neither take credit for creating, nor were you able to preserve it. How can you argue that I should not spare this great city and all of its people and livestock—that I created!?

Church, this is us! How easy it has been to sit in our pews and to sink deeply into our self-righteousness as we see the “fallen” world around us. How easy it is to take our sobriety, our support, our resources, our faith, for granted—as if something we earned. How easy it is to throw up our hands and say “I told them they were wrong, it’s on them if they miss it.” We did not get here on our own, nor do we have the power to stay here.

Thankfully, God is still the God who shelters us from the sun, then moves nature to rid us of it so that we can see the error in our ways. Thankfully, God is still the God that is full of more mercy and more grace than any of us could muster.

Remember the story of the prodigal son? Jesus was talking with His disciples, and He told them this parable (“an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”): There was a wealthy man who had two sons. The youngest son asked for his inheritance early so that he could go travel and experience life on his own. The older son stayed home and helped his father take care of their property. Unfortunately, the younger son squandered his inheritance and ended up so hungry that the slop they fed to pigs started to look appetizing. He remembered the love and care of his father and decided to head home. Luke 15:20 says “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Then they had a huge party.

The older son, at this point, was pretty pissed. He had done all that was required of him; he had remained faithful to his father, and he had stayed while his brother had left. So, he refused to go to the party. He said to his father: “I have been here this whole time. I have never left you and yet you never celebrated me. My brother comes home from wasting your money and you throw a party for him!” The father replied: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad…”

In other words, “show some grace!”

Thankfully, God is still the God who runs to embrace us when we run away and the God who loves us through our jealousy and self-righteousness. God is still the God that shows us more mercy and more grace than we deserve—and the type of father who lovingly nudges us to do the same.

There are a lot of other stories of mercy and grace, I’m sure you are familiar with them:

  • The woman caught in adultery: When the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked what they ought to do to the woman who had committed adultery (future article: “why patriarchy and sexism in the Bible still hurts us today”), they knew (and Jesus did too) that the law required for her to be stoned. Jesus, being the radical and disruptive guy that he is, switched things up and said “let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” Crickets. They all eventually walked away. Jesus was left as the only one qualified to throw a stone (i.e. without sin). “Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’” (Luke 8).
  • Zaccheaeus “was a wee little man” and a tax collector and a pretty corrupt one at that. One day he invited Jesus to eat with him: some people—judging as we do—said “[Jesus] has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19). Because Jesus showed Zaccheaeus grace and loved him despite the harm he had caused, he ended up giving half of his belongings to the poor and paying back those who he had cheated (4x what he owed!).
  • Saul to Paul transformation: he was fresh off the stoning of Stephen when God turned his whole life around. Saul was known for persecuting (similar to prosecuting but I guess it’s different too) Christians and dragging them off to prison. But, on his way to Damascus, God literally opened the skies and brought him into the light of His glory. (Acts 9). God didn’t punish him or lock him up, He showed him a whole lot of grace. We all know Saul/Paul not only went on to give up his life for Jesus, but his teachings and encouragements are still a huge blessing to the church today.

You probably already knew about all of this grace and mercy. But you might be asking “how will we maintain order?” It is true that society needs to have rules in order to function well. But it is also true that we need to lead with grace. We can still have laws and we can still have order without throwing people away, without locking people in cages, without forgetting about our need for redemption and mercy.

One more story.

I think it is fair to say that the moment where we get the clearest view of Jesus’s mercy and grace is when He is hanging on the cross. Many have explained it this way: knowing that we were separated from God because of our sin, Jesus decided to come to us. He decided to live the perfect life that God requires, the life none of us can live, and then die the death we all deserve to die—in order to save us from it! In a world so tainted by greed and harm, Jesus pushed aside all that distracts us and pulled us in. When we had no way of saving ourselves, He showed us some ridiculous—amazing—grace and brought us close.

Hanging next to Jesus were two “criminals.” The Bible says they were thieves; we don’t really know much else. One thief ridiculed Jesus, and the other asked for forgiveness. Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23). Jesus also looked around him and down below and had mercy on those who he saw. “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on His right and one on His left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.” (Luke 23).

My favorite theologian, Rachel Held Evans, once said this about that night:

Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But why is it so radical, so great, so amazing that Jesus chose mercy over retribution? Over punishment? As creator of the world, as knower of all things, Jesus understood something we often miss about mercy—it moves us in ways that punishment, that getting what we deserve, cannot. Bryan Stevenson, my favorite lawyer, put it this way in his book Just Mercy: “When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

If we have claimed to follow Jesus, we need to actually follow Jesus. We will never be perfect at it, but here is an area where we need to do better. When our system of incarceration and policing is so biased and harsh that one in three black baby boys will end up in jail, that is on us. When society decides to lock someone in a cage for the rest of their life, that is on us. When our government decides to repay murder with murder, that is on us.

If Jesus were alive today, I think He would be a prison abolitionist. I think he would hold close every survivor and every person who has been harmed—including those who’s harm and pain brought on convictions and incarceration rather than the healing they needed. I think He would spend His weekends in the visiting rooms of all the local prisons. And I think He would do other radical things and love and show grace in ways that I can’t even imagine because He would be a better prison abolitionist than all of us.

So let’s stop getting in the way. Let’s show grace, have mercy, and cherish redemption in the ways that Jesus taught us.

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