People from across the political system have called for reform of the penal system in the United States. With Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, Dominique DuBois Gilliard delivers both a bevvy of information for those curious about the penal system alongside a call to work for higher justice.
The book is arranged around two parts: “The Roots and Evolution of Mass Incarceration” and “The Church’s Witness and Testimony.” These parts have much interplay with each other. The first part lays the groundwork for understanding how the United States has become the world’s largest prison system. He grounds this in a slew of historical details, starting with an examination of the “War on Drugs” and how it led to a massive upturn in numbers of incarcerated. Gilliard notes how Black Codes paved the way for “Neoslavery” and the use of the penal system to effectively make slaves once again. He notes these historical perspectives alongside discussion of the “pipelines” (to prison) of mental health, privatized prisons for profit, and immigration. Each of these has clear justice issues that cannot be ignored. The School-to-Prison pipeline, something I had only heard referenced but not really dug into before, seems quite clear to me after reading this book. Essentially, by allowing police presence into schools, we have criminalized delinquency at an alarming rate. Things that may have earned detention or suspension before now yield prison sentences to minors. Frankly, this seems insane. I was blown away by learning that very few states have any special training for the “resource officers” that are put into schools to watch our children is equally disturbing. There is no requirement for any kind of child psychology, de-escalating situations with minors, and the like whatsoever in most places.
After establishing this historical basis for the increase in incarceration rates, Gilliard turns to seeing what the church might do about this plight. He does not ignore historical perspective here, either. One of the most moving and interesting chapters in the book is “The Prisoners’ Pastor: Chaplaincy and Theology’s Institutional Impact.” Therein, Gilliard uses chaplains at the notorious Sing Sing prison in New York as a case study. It was thought by some that sending chaplains to the prisoners was pointless because they were “too far gone” to be impacted by such a ministry. The impact of the persistent chaplains in the face of serious opposition–including by those who ran the prison–is a wonderful tale, but not one without stumbling blocks either. It is also clear that when the chaplains become tools of the system, it can be incredibly damaging.
Another chapter examines the nature of punishment and how a Christian view of the penal system ought to be oriented towards not just punishment but also bringing people back into community. He argues this through an analysis of biblical justice and showing that restoration is a major theme. One of the major ways we can help to cut down on the system of mass incarceration is to educate rather than resort to exclusion and punishment every single time.
Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores is a fascinating, heart-rending, and immediately applicable book. Agree or disagree with Dominique DuBois Gilliard’s positions, it should be read by Christians who wish to think discerningly about our penal system. I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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