But of those who are released every year, who come back to our communities, all too many will find themselves back behind bars. Some people who cannot abide by the rules of society, who sin against God’s people, should have their liberty limited. Yet we talk of a correctional system, a system that is supposed to provide rehabilitation so those who have served their time as punishment can return to society redeemed and reformed. Unfortunately, corrections is an oxymoron for many of our facilities, it does not occur, and punishment does not end when one leaves the prison walls. We have gotten this punishment thing all wrong. People are sent to prison, have their liberty taken, controlled, as punishment, but all too often, that punishment follows them after their release. Criminal records follow them back to their communities where they are unable to obtain jobs, secure housing, or receive governmental and educational benefits that might allow them to become functioning and law-abiding citizens. Although there have been calls to “ban the box” and there are some locales that have eliminated the question concerning conviction on job applications, there is no guarantee that the question will not raise its ugly head later in the application process. While ex-offenders may have repented, they can find that there is little forgiveness. They have come from our communities, were once a part of our communities, and yet reconciliation can be elusive, bringing them back into the fold to live among us, to again be one with us. If those who have violated the law and who want to be re-integrated into the community, to be reconciled, are to be successful, they will need the assistance of all who have a stake in their success and there is a continued role for the Church.
We, who believe that God reconciles God’s people through Jesus Christ and that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), must work even harder to provide the means for those who have reformed or who are working on reformation to return to our communities and be successful. Jesus was the victim of a biased and overzealous justice system that resulted in his unjust conviction and, ultimately, his execution. In many ways, our justice system mirrors that of the 1st century CE. To change the system the following recommendations can either begin or continue the discussions on the role of the church in ending mass incarceration and insuring justice for God’s people.
1. End mass incarceration. The church must be active in the public square to eliminate biased policing and work to change or eliminate laws that have criminalized black and brown bodies and resulted in their over-representation in our prisons and jails.
2. Help the incarcerated prepare for re-entry. Work with correctional institutions, the mission of many which is to warehouse and not correct, to develop comprehensive re-entry plans for each returnee that look toward employment, housing, health care, family re-integration, and educational opportunities.3
3. Support successful re-integration. Walk with the returnee on this journey and recognize milestones on the road to success. Continue to insure that connections with peer groups, community, social service, criminal justice, and faith institutions are in place and working.4
We profess that we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). If we truly believe what we profess, we can change the system for the better.
Fisher-Stewart is associate rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C. where she is the founder of the Center for the Study of Faith in Justice. She is a former D.C. police officer.
1 Jeremy Travis, But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry (Washington, D.C. Urban Institute Press, 2005) 323.
2 Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016” (3/14/2016) @ prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2016.html.
3 Travis, Jeremy, 324-329.
4 Travis, Jeremy, 333-340.