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Removing the “Penance” In Penitentiaries – Toward A Political Theology Of The Carceral State (Greg Williams)

In his foundational work of political theology, The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan argues that all sovereign authority belongs to God and that, in Jesus Christ, all claims by political institutions (including the modern state) to mediate that authority have been rendered null and void.

The work expands upon a claim that he made in his earlier, equally foundational work, Resurrection and Moral Order, that the grounding insight of western theology is “the assertion that the kingdoms of this world are not the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, not, at any rate, until God intervenes to make them so at the end” (72).

In Desire, O’Donovan argues that this is so because, in the four moments of the Christ event – the advent, passion, restoration, and exaltation of Jesus of Nazareth, the four dimensions of God’s sovereignty – salvation, judgement, possession, and praise – are authoritatively instantiated.

This instantiation continues, O’Donovan argues, in the sacramental life of the church. The people of God instantiate God’s salvation and the advent of Christ as a people gathered in baptism. They instantiate God’s judgement and the passion of Christ as a co-sufferers with the world (especially the exploited and the oppressed) in the eucharist. They instantiate God’s possession and the restoration of Christ as a glad people in keeping the Lord’s Day (Sunday). And they instantiate God’s praise and the exaltation of Christ as a speaking people in their prayer for and prophetic witness to the world.

The sacramental life of the church, then, renders the absolute political authority of God a material force in history, and, insodoing, renders the world’s politics contingent and prudential. The only politics that has any legitimacy in the face of Christ’s resurrection is a humble politics, which subordinates power and possession to the act of judgement, the righting of wrongs. Anything else, especially any politics that subordinates judgement to power and possession, is the politics of the anti-Christ.

I could not help looking again at O’Donovan’s work when thinking about how to respond to the news that, in a highly publicized event on Sunday, June 24, staff and volunteers at the Durham County Jail baptized 39 inmates there. While I have no reason to doubt the genuine faith of any of the detainees who were baptized that day (or even the efficaciousness of the sacrament, which is guaranteed by God, and no one else), it was clear that the media spectacle organized around the event by Sheriff Mike Andrews and his professional publicist, Tamara Gibbs, was designed to use religious imagery to bolster the image of the jail, which just so happened to be asking that a surprise funding increase be added to the county budget that week.

Baptism, according to O’Donovan, constitutes the church as a gathered people in service to no lord but Jesus Christ, and therefore involves the claim that ultimate political authority cannot lie with any earthly power, but with the unmediated sovereignty of God and response of human beings represented in the divine and human person of Jesus. For baptism to be press-ganged into the service of a media event designed to funnel more money towards incarceration that could be going to education, employment, and healthcare in our community is, on a visceral level, disturbing to say the least.

The details of this case and its context in the broader struggle situated around the Durham County Jail confirm and deepen these initial suspicions. Three particular issues stand out. The first is the power imbalance involved. We need to be clear that this was not a baptism that just so happened to be performed at the jail.

It was performed by the jail. The team of ministers who performed the baptism was led by Julian Couch, an administrator whom jail inmates, writing for a local publication of prisoners’ writings called Amplify Voices, have accused of ignoring instances of medical neglect by guards under his command, and arbitrarily placing prisoners on lockback (that is, in near solitary confinement), and Andrew and Andre Mims, a sergeant and a detention officer whom prisoners writing for the same publication have accused of physical abuse, including, most recently, tazing a 16-year-old prisoner in the back. Moreover, as they proceeded from the font back to their cells, each of the baptized inmates was handed a bible study guide by Sheriff Mike Andrews himself.

The second issue is the double standard with which non-Christian inmates are treated. More than thirty Christian churches are allowed to perform religious services in the jail. But Muslim prisoners report suffering sustained abuse and discrimination. Inmates’ writings testify that it is extremely difficult for a Muslim inmate in the jail to have a Qu’ran or a prayer rug, and the jail refuses to serve Muslim inmates food at the proper time for them to observe Ramadan. Muslim inmates have also reported detention officers (including one of the Mims brothers) verbally harassing them when they attempt to practice their faith. The Durham County Jail is not simply providing prisoners with religious services. It is claiming to be a “Christian institution.”

This brings up the third issue, which is the role of this baptism qua media spectacle in the jail’s efforts to reposition itself in local political debate – and this is where this case is representative of broader trends across the US. For years, the Durham County Jail has been the subject of harsh criticism from local activists over the conditions it imposes on inmates.

The jail contracts health care, nutrition, and visitation services to private companies that neglect and price gouge inmates, and has no transparent grievance process to deal with complaints of verbal harassment and physical abuse by guards. In the last year, three prisoners died in the jail, most likely as a result of medical neglect, malnutrition, and the indifference of detention officers and other staff. All of these issues have been the subject of public protests which have, in some measure, forced changes to be made at the jail, especially giving inmates more time out of their cells and serving them three hot meals a day (although malnutrition remains a serious and ongoing issue).

The jail appears to be responding by adopting a politics of “reform by expansion,” in which it treats these concerns as an opportunity to ask for more money rather than put fewer people in jail in the first place and take essential services out of the hands of private corporations. Its most recent ask from the county commissioners was to fund a “mental health pod” that would house inmates experiencing mental illnesses. It is already the county’s de facto policy to send people with mental health problems to jail rather than funding treatment options in the community.

The creation of a “mental health pod” makes this de facto policy a de jure one, formalizing the county’s commitment to respond to mental illness with incarceration rather than treatment and making it even harder to challenge, with the money already committed and the physical and institutional infrastructure created. The funding request for the mental health pod came at the last minute and didn’t give activists or other concerned community members time to respond. The day before the county commissioners voted on it, the jail made a show of baptizing thirty nine inmates with cameras rolling.

What are we to make of this? Is it merely a cynical effort to lend religious legitimacy to an institution under heavy public criticism? It certainly is that, but I am convinced that there is more going on here. The call for a mental health pod is a good example of a broader discourse in the debate over criminal justice in America which seeks to cast jails and prisons as institutions that provide “care” to problematic individuals.

That care might be sub-par, but that is a reason to give jails and prisons more funding and provide more services, not to incarcerate fewer people. The populations involved might be overwhelmingly black and brown, but that is a reason to provide humanitarian services to those communities (in collaboration with police, of course!) and “reentry resources” for people coming out of jail and prison, not to critique the state practices that actively target poor, black and brown communities for police terror and incarceration. In short, where popular movements criticizing “prison slavery” and “the new jim crow” have identified prison as a political problem, this sort of reformist politics identifies prisoners as a humanitarian problem, and as an object of the church’s missionary activity.

This is why so many congregations and seminaries (including Yale Divinity School, where I did my seminary training, and Duke Divinity School, where I am now completing doctoral work), upon reading books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, respond by teaching classes and performing religious services in prisons or establishing halfway houses rather than demanding policy changes. Rafia Zakaria points out that “mass incarceration uses rehabilitation to hide the realities of social control” in much the same way that “military intervention has appropriated the language of humanitarianism to disguise imperialist motives.”

It is important to stress that the problem here is not with service provision or humanitarian forms of mission more broadly, but with a pattern of provision and mission that treats prisoners as problematic individuals who need to be reformed (even if their problems are the end result of racist and class structures) rather than as people experiencing racialized and classed forms of state terror which ought to be challenged, and ultimately as potential partners in making that challenge through grassroots community organizing and direct action.

There are bona fide forms of service provision that make the later presumption, such as the Prisoner Correspondence Project, George Jackson University, Black and Pink, Jesus The Liberator Seminary, and Durham’s own Prison Books collective. These, however, are not getting any boost from jails and prisons’ efforts to market themselves as institutions of care and salvation, nor are they significantly more popular for churches to participate in than straight-up abolitionist organizing.

This is not at all new. Prisons in America were partially born of Quaker and Methodist efforts to establish “penitentiaries” as supposedly humane responses to crime. As Maya Schenwar writes, prison was originally advocated as “a humane alternative to death and torture – a place where, isolated from society, those convicted of crimes would, theoretically, do penance (in a ‘penitentiary’) and emerge rehabilitated.” However, “after slavery was abolished in 1865 – and again in the 20th century, after the fall of jim crow – the prison became a strategy for maintaining a racial caste system in the South and throughout the country.”

With the passage of the thirteenth amendment, which reformed slavery by assimilating it to incarceration, the image of the “criminal,” the problematic individual or “sinner” who was supposed to “repent” in prison came to be identified with black and brown personhood. There is a strong argument to be made (though there is not enough space to make it here) that “slave,” “sinner,” and “criminal” have merged in the American theopolitical imagination as synonyms for blackness.

Many of the “reforms” of prison that are being proposed across the country presume this logic, and use it to justify solving the problems associated with mass incarceration by building more prisons, or establishing more programs in prisons, leading Schenwar to worry that “if we’re not careful, the golden age of prison reform will simply reform mass incarceration in its own image.”

For present purposes, it is enough to note that the old image of prison-as-penitentiary is making a comeback in American politics, that this image has always been a theological one, and that this context makes sense of, and is exemplified by, the use of baptism by the Durham County Jail to argue for a funding increase for the creation of a “mental health pod” in the jail.

Baptism, after all, is the Christian sacrament of repentance. For the jail to be an institution that baptizes people (and again, we need to be clear that it is in fact the jail that performed this baptism, not merely served as a site for it) is for it to claim, in a specifically Christian mode, to be and do what the church is and does when it baptizes – to extend healing grace to a sinner who needs to be reconciled to God and neighbor and thus turn their life around (repentance literally comes from the greek word metanoia or “to turn”).

It is necessary to call this claim what it is: idolatrous and heretical. In claiming to “acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” the church of Jesus Christ affirms that there is not a particular set (much less a racialized set) of “problematic individuals” who need to be “saved” by a penitential institution like a prison. Everyone is a problematic individual who needs to be saved and can only be saved by the grace of God in Christ that the church instantiates in the sacrament of baptism, which must therefore be administered independently of any worldly classifications of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female – or of criminal (black) or citizen (white).

To put the matter in O’Donovan’s terms, it is one thing for jails prisons to claim to be institutions of judgment, institutions that right wrongs and restrain evil – a claim that many of us would contest (I would, in fact, argue that, as institutions that articulate America’s racial caste system, the jails and prisons currently constitute a classic instance of the subordination of judgement to forces of power and possession, and therefore instantiates what O’Donovan would call a politics of the anti-Christ).

But before that debate can even be had, Christian theology must completely rule out any claim by jails and prisons to be institutions of salvation, the precise claim that both the jail baptism and the request for a mental health pod make.  The claim that prisons are institutions of judgement is a political claim that can and should be politically contested. The claim that prisons are institutions of salvation is a theological claim that bears the weight of status confessionis, and which Christian theology should denounce.

This claim is becoming increasingly common in the debate around incarceration in America, as recent events in Durham show. The church must, in light of this, pray for wisdom to read the signs of the times, and courage to confront the anti-Christian, racist politics of the carceral state both politically and theologically. Veni creator spiritus! May it be so. Amen.

Greg Williams is a ThD Student at Duke University Divinity School, who writes out of his experience doing grassroots community organizing and direct action work with an anti-colonial/anti-capitalist orientation in non-statist democratic left spaces.  He has been particularly active in the alter-globalization movement, and in anti-poverty, labor, migrant justice, prison abolition, environmental, and indigenous and Palestinian solidarity work.  He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the local Durham prisoner organizing group Inside-Outside Alliance.  He is a baptized Jew of Ashkenazi heritage and an Anarch@Communist.


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