Institute for Christian Studies
Set the Prisoners Free:
Christianity and Prison Abolition
Print by Benjamin Wildflower
Instructor: Dean Dettloff
Term: Winter, 2020 — Online
“He has sent me to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus’s Gospel is a message of freedom. Liberation from bondage permeates the biblical narrative as a driving theme, with Jesus quoting Isaiah as he announces the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to proclaim release to the prisoners and to let the oppressed go free.
Yet the United States of America, a country that many Christians call home, has the highest incarceration rate of any country on the planet. By some estimates, although the US has only 5% of the world’s population, it contains over 20% of the world’s prison population. People of color, especially Black Americans, are disproportionately incarcerated, making up nearly 40% of the US prison population despite being 13% of the population as a whole. In Canada, another country with deep Christian origins, Indigenous people make up 46% of incarcerated youth and only 8% of Canada’s population.
Mass incarceration and its ties to systemic racism have prompted a radical movement for not only prison reform, but the abolition of prisons altogether. Such a proposal raises many questions. What would a world without prisons look like? How should communities deal with injustices? What are the causes of crime, and how might justice be done without the prison? In this thirteen week online class, we will explore how Christianity both funds the ideology of mass incarceration and a spirit of prison abolition, asking what it would mean to proclaim release to the prisoners today.
Christ in Limbo, Benvenuto di Giovanni, ~1491
Participants with diverse learning styles and needs are welcome in this course. In particular, if you have a disability/health consideration that may require accommodations, please feel free to approach me and/or Student Services as soon as possible.
Note: Participants in this seminar come from many different backgrounds. Talking about the history and conditions of prisons is a challenging and deeply personal topic for many, and it has the potential to bring up traumatic experiences. All participants are expected to be open, empathetic, and gracious with each other, guest lecturers, and the subject matter at hand. The reading material will address things like racism, police brutality, sexual violence, generational injustice, drugs, colonialism, poverty, and more. I will do my best to flag these issues prior to the reading in each lecture, but if for any reason you feel you cannot or should not participate in a particular class period, before or during the reading/discussion, please let me know, if you feel comfortable, and we can discuss alternatives for participation together. I will trust your intuition and will not demand further information.
Introduction: Mass Incarceration, Biblical Themes, and Syllabus
Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Introduction
Historicizing Mass Incarceration in the US and Canada
Mass Incarceration in the United States
Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Chs. 3 and 5
Mass Incarceration in Canada
Akwatu, “The Canadian war on drugs: Structural violence and unequal treatment of Black Canadians”
Chartrand, “Unsettled Times: Indigenous Incarceration and the Links between Colonialism and the Penitentiary in Canada”
Further reading: Maynard, Policing Black Lives
The Carceral Theology of Christianity
Christian Complicity in Carceral Logic I
Vesely-Flad, “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment”
Taylor, “Christianity and US Prison Abolition: Rupturing a Hegemonic Christian Ideology”
Christian Complicity in Carceral Logic II
Taylor, “Decolonizing Mass Incarceration: ‘Flesh Will Wear Out Chains’”
What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation, 5-21, 109-111
Are Prisons Obsolete?
Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Chs 1-3
Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Chs 4-6
Counter-Theologies and Abolitionism
Proposals for Abolitionist Theologies
Higginbotham, “Convicted: Toward a Pastoral Theology of Incarceration”
Lydon, “A Theology for the Penal Abolition Movement”
Ahn, Chiu, and O’Neill, “‘And You Welcomed Me?’”
Robert, “Penitence, Plantation and the Penitentiary: A Liberation Theology For Lockdown America” (pp 55-68)
Religion and Abolition
Dubler and Lloyd, Break Every Yoke, Intro, Ch 1
Religion and Abolition
Dubler and Lloyd, Break Every Yoke, Ch 2
Religion and Abolition
Dubler and Lloyd, Break Every Yoke, Ch 3
Religion and Abolition
Dubler and Lloyd, Break Every Yoke, Ch 4
Religion and Abolition
Dubler and Lloyd, Break Every Yoke, Ch 5, Conclusion
*Subject to change in consultation with class.
Course Learning Goals
After taking this seminar, participants will acquire a critical understanding of Christianity’s relationship to the rise and maintenance of prisons and their abolition. Students will be able to:
a) Total reading of 1250 pgs, of which ~40-60 pages are required per class.
b) Class Participation:
c) Reading Response:
d) Description of course project:
e) Description and weighting of elements to be evaluated:
i. Class Participation: 20%
ii. Reading Response: 20%
iii. Research Project/Paper: 60%
Required Readings: (bibliographic listing)
Ahn, llsup, Agnes Chiu, and William O'Neill, “‘And You Welcomed Me?’: A Theological Response to the Militarization of the US-Mexico Borders and the Criminalization of Undocumented Migrants,” CrossCurrents, 63(3) (September 2013): 303-322
Akwatu, Khenti, “The Canadian war on drugs: Structural violence and unequal treatment of Black Canadians,” International Journal of Drug Policy, 25 (2014): 190–195
Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010)
Chartrand, Vicki, “Unsettled Times: Indigenous Incarceration and the Links between Colonialism and the Penitentiary in Canada,” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice / Revue canadienne de criminologie et de justice pénale, 61(3) (July 2019): 67-89
Davis, Angela Y., Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003)
Dubler, Joshua and Vincent Lloyd, Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)
Higginbotham, James, “Convicted: Toward a Pastoral Theology of Incarceration,” Journal of Pastoral Theology, 25(2) (2015): 93-106
Lydon, Jason, “A Theology for the Penal Abolition Movement,” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 23(3) (2011):296–303
Robert, Nikia Smith, “Penitence, Plantation and the Penitentiary: A Liberation Theology For Lockdown America,” The Graduate Journal of Harvard Divinity School, 12 (2017): 41-70
Taylor, Mark Lewis, “Christianity and US Prison Abolition: Rupturing a Hegemonic Christian Ideology,” Socialism and Democracy, 28(3) (2014): 172–188
_____. “Decolonizing Mass Incarceration: ‘Flesh Will Wear Out Chains,’” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, 13(1) (Winter 2014): 121-142
Vesely-Flad, Rima, “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment,” Anglican Theological Review, 93(4) (2011): 541-562
What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015
Recommended Readings: (bibliographic listing)
Dubler, Joshua, Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013)
Graber, Janet, “Natives Need Prison: The Sanctification of Racialized Incarceration,” Religions, 10(2) (2019): 1-12
_____. “Prisons and Religion in the Americas,” Religion Compass, 7(12) (2013): 532-540
Griffith, Lee, The Fall of the Prison: Biblical Perspectives on Prison Abolition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993)
Jay, Mark, “Cages and Crises: A Marxist Analysis of Mass Incarceration,” Historical Materialism, 27(1) (2019): 182–223.
Maynard, Robin, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present (Black Point: Fernwood, 2017)
Neeganagwedgin, Erica, “‘They Can’t Take Our Ancestors Out Of Us’: A Brief Historical Account of Canada’s Residential School System, Incarceration, Institutionalized Policies and Legislation Against Indigenous Peoples,” Canadian Issues (Spring 2014): 31-36
Schenwar, Maya, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better (Oakland: Berrett-Koehler, 2014)
Warde, Bryan, “Black Male Disproportionality in the Criminal Justice Systems of the USA, Canada, and England: a Comparative Analysis of Incarceration,” Journal of African American Studies, 17(4) (December 2013): 461-479
Podcast: Beyond Prisons
See also the work of Citizens for Public Justice:
Second Chance Series - this series of short articles explores reintegrating formerly incarcerated people into daily life.
What Justice Requires - this study advocates the closure of youth prisons from a Christian perspective and recommends concrete steps for Christian communities to take in this effort.
Stevens, Abigail, “Coming Home: A Community-Based Approach to Housing for Returning Citizens” - this study examines the challenges of housing faced by formerly incarcerated people and explores the ramifications of policies and governmental bodies.
Relevant Reading From Reformational Philosophy
Ansell, Nicholas, “Doing Justice (According) to Scripture” in The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013), 315-359