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Visit Those in Prison. Just Remember Jesus May Have Gotten There First.

Very often, people behind bars already have a relationship with God.
Visit Those in Prison. Just Remember Jesus May Have Gotten There First.
Image: Tiburon Studios / Getty Images

Two centuries ago, philanthropist Elizabeth Fry visited an English prison and left horrified by the filthy conditions. Driven by her Christian faith, Fry spent her life building relationships with the incarcerated and advocating improvements to their physical environment. Dominique Gilliard, the Evangelical Covenant Church’s director of racial righteousness and reconciliation, points to Fry’s example in Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores, which explores the intersection of Christian faith and criminal justice reform. CT associate digital media producer Morgan Lee spoke with Gilliard about the hope and tension of restorative justice.

What does your book contribute to the current conversation about criminal justice reform?

Most people mention two particular prison pipelines: the war on drugs and the privatization of prisons. But very few people talk about what I would describe as a war on immigration that is modeled closely after the war on drugs. And hardly anyone talks about the deinstitutionalization of the mental health facilities, which is another important driver for mass incarceration.

But I’m also trying to make this conversation relevant to the church. When you look at books like Just Mercy or The New Jim Crow, you don’t see much explicit analysis of the connection between Christian theology and support for mass incarceration. Christians, as a voting bloc, have been pretty beholden to tough-on-crime legislation.

What is your opinion of evangelical ministries that work directly with prisoners?

Certainly, passages like Matthew 25 call us into communion with the incarcerated. But one problem arises when evangelical ministers or volunteers assume that they alone are bringing Jesus into the prison. Very often, people behind bars already have a relationship with God, thanks to chaplains and other people who were present before the volunteers arrived. Inmates are often living out their faith in very robust ways. They see themselves as disciples making other disciples. To come in with this perception that there’s no way an inmate knows God is deeply troubling.

And yet I’m also encouraged by evangelical involvement. You can’t fully understand what’s going on behind bars if you never go to prisons yourself. You see a change in your presuppositions about who prisoners are and what they’re like. They’re everyday people like you and me, people who used to have respectable vocations. They have families and loved ones. It’s hard to see this without actually learning to do life with people behind bars.

How can “restorative justice” work as an alternative to mass incarceration?

Our justice system looks at crime primarily as an offense against the state, which means the state, through lawyers and judges, takes the lead in deciding what should happen in light of the offense. Often, the victim has no say.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, says that after a crime has occurred, the ultimate goal is reconciliation and restoration, which isn’t possible without the offender and the victim actually interacting.

Restorative justice works. It’s been effective in places like New Zealand and Rwanda, after the genocide. In America, we’ve seen schools plagued by violence and high expulsion rates use restorative justice to keep kids in school, rather than surrendering them to the prison system. When I lived in Oakland, one of the mayors ran on a platform of restorative justice for the entire city.

Aren’t there scenarios, like particularly violent crime, where incarceration is the only realistic option?

There are crimes severe enough that the person needs to be removed from society, and in those cases, incarceration isn’t the problem. But the problem with our system is that there isn’t always a tangible plan for reintegration. How do you make sure you have the resources and communal support to become a productive citizen? When you release someone from jail with a bus ticket and 35 bucks but no one to provide welcome and support, it’s a recipe for failure.

Have you ever felt a tension between your faith and your work for criminal justice reform?

For me, there hasn’t always been a place for grace in the conversation. The situation was black and white: We submit to earthly authorities, and if you do the crime, then you have to do the time. But if Jesus died on the cross for us while we were yet sinners, then it can’t be that simple. I learned to realize that our prisons are not set up to bring about reform and equip offenders with the tools needed to reintegrate into society in healthy ways.

The more I read Scripture, the more I could see how prevalent prison is within the Bible—how Christ himself and so many leaders of our faith were impacted by the criminal justice system. People who have been locked up, then, are still people God can use powerfully. If that weren’t true, you’d have to take away Jesus. You’d have to take away Paul. What is our faith without these people? I could see how Scripture was subverting the way we’ve been taught to think about criminals. No one is irredeemable in God’s eyes.

Can you talk about the personal relationships you’ve had with those affected by the criminal justice system?

When I was in Oakland, I helped lead a program to help returning citizens—mostly high-school age and young adults—get back on their feet and get an education. My relationship with these guys really helped me understand the psychological harm they endured, particularly when they were subjected to solitary confinement. It had a debilitating impact cognitively, and they struggled to believe they were worthy of contributing meaningfully to society.

I was also asked to teach a class on healthy sexuality. And I was nervous: I’m this young pastor who’s never been incarcerated. I’m married, and I’ve never led a promiscuous lifestyle. It forced me to confront some of my presuppositions about criminality. And I’m sure the men had certain assumptions about me. But through our time together, we learned to see past these preconceptions. These men were anxious to have a conversation about what chaste, Christ-centered relationships look like. They were anxious to know what it means to fully and exclusively give themselves to one person in marriage.

How can churches minister to families affected by incarceration?

For some churches, this means getting involved in tutoring and mentoring, and even forming partnerships with under-resourced schools in your community. Other churches are involved in foster care. During the holiday season, we can be in relationship with foster homes and invite children into our own families to share the love of Christ.

It’s crucial to find the heartbeat of your church. Your church might have a heart for education. Or for caring for children orphaned by the incarceration of a mother or father. Eighty percent of women who are incarcerated are mothers. What does it mean for all of these mothers to be away from their families? How can the church can step up and kind of provide maternal figures for these children?

Another avenue of support is to keep in touch with children who receive free or reduced-price lunches throughout the school year. Very few people ask, “What happens during the summertime when school is not in session? How do these kids eat? Where do they get access to food?” Churches can actually volunteer to be feeding centers where those kids can have meals prepared during the summer. These kids will otherwise go hungry or possibly resort to illegal behavior to put food on the table. The church can step in as a haven of love and relationship.

Learn something new from this interview? Did we miss something? Let us know here.

July/August
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