by Dominique Gilliard
Every year, Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) dedicates a week to national awareness and action to engage mass incarceration, a time where we call our members to consider what a faithful response to mass incarceration entails. Locked in Solidarity has always been about living into Scripture’s call to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering (Heb. 13:3). In a nation that incarcerates more people than any country in the history of the world, we have a unique opportunity to live into the Kingdom solidarity this passage summons us to.
This call is to the collective Body, not just certain parts or members.
As we spend time with Jesus behind bars—whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me (Matt. 25:40)—becoming proximate to the suffering of incarcerated people, and by extension returning citizens, we begin to learn what faithfully engaging our criminal justice system entails. We become exposed to the myriad ways women (who are the fastest growing population in our criminal justice system), men and children are being mistreated daily: enduring solitary confinement, physical abuse, sexual assault and the economic exploitation of their labor.
In this exposure we begin to understand that our criminal justice system commonly defaces the Image of God.
A primary example of this mistreatment and suffering was seen in Brooklyn, where more than 1,600 incarcerated people were locked in freezing cells amid a polar vortex at a federal jail on the waterfront for at least a week. With temperatures dropping to 2 degrees, Anthony Sanon—the local union chapter president—explained that problems began around Jan. 5, 2019 when the jail initially lost power. The heating problems started last week [1-27 through 2-3], forcing the incarcerated and staff to endure freezing temperatures. Sanon said “We didn’t have heat in the building, we didn’t have light, the weather was actually unbearable.” Rachel Bass, a paralegal from the Brooklyn office of the Federal Defenders, explained “People are frantic. They’re really, really scared. They don’t have extra blankets. They don’t have access to the commissary to buy an extra sweatshirt.”[i] Throughout the week, the incarcerated masses attempted to bring awareness to their plight by banging cups on cell bars to garner our attention as citizens on the outside, hoping to attune our ears to their suffering.[ii]
In this watershed moment, our brothers and sisters behind bars asked, does the Church have eyes to see, ears, to hear, and hearts to respond to the suffering our criminal justice system is producing. The archbishop Oscar Romero once said, “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.”[iii] This is a kairos moment for the Western Church. We must realize that we possess the power to help transform our criminal justice system; but, if transformed lives and reconciled communities are to ever become the true aim of our justice system, the Church is going to have to lead the way in advocating for a new system that actually provides opportunities for authentic rehabilitation, lasting transformation, and healthy reintegration.
While we are not all called to the same thing, we are all called to something.
Every congregation, and congregant, has an imperative role to play. To help the Church consider what advocating for justice that restores can tangibly look like within our communities and congregations, I created and am sharing a 20-point advocacy and reform agenda. I pray that these recommendations help give some direction and inspires the Church to deepen our engagement with our criminal justice system, beyond just visiting the incarcerated. Alongside of the 20-point advocacy and reform platform, you can also access a brand-new video-based small group curriculum for my book Rethinking Incarceration at Walking Towards Love. I pray and believe that these resources will aid the Church as it discerns next steps in combating mass incarceration.
As a fellow CCDA practitioner and pastor, I understand the
urgent need to develop real solutions for the pressing problems decimating our
communities. Those directly impacted by incarceration are desperately hoping
that our witness—like Paul and Silas before us—will shake the very foundations
of a broken criminal justice system. Amid the dehumanization, exploitation, and
fiscal mismanagement that has become normative within our criminal justice system
today, the Church has Good News to offer. I pray that these resources help
empower us to faithfully participate—as co-laborers with Christ—in God’s
ongoing work of restoring all things; including broken systems.
[iii] Jerry Windley-Daoust, Primary Source Readings in Catholic Social Justice, (Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 2007), 35.
Dominique DuBois Gilliard is the Director of Racial Righteousness and Reconciliation for the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). He is the author of Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores.