Study Guide: Mass Incarceration

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Tips for engaging in study and discussions on mass incarceration and racism

The Rev. Bob Wilson of First UMC Pittsburgh said, as a white person, he has learned to listen to people of color when it comes to discussion issues of race, power, and privilege in church and society.

“It is hard for well-meaning white people to deal with our privilege; we rebel against that term, but we have to address it if the Church has a chance of overcoming racism,” he explained.

The same can be said of addressing issues of class privilege, says the Rev. Janet Wolf. “Who wants to hear Jesus say, ‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first when you’re a first.’ But the gospel is clear: we must practice our faith by hanging out with, listening to, and respecting the voices of those in our society who are on the edge. And when it comes to mass incarceration in the United States, race and class matter.”

Wolf and others recommend that, whenever possible, congregations and church leaders come together with people of other racial groups to build community and talk through hard issues.

Bishops and superintendents can set an example by convening study groups among district and conference clergy and lay leaders. Other suggestions for study:

  • Start by telling your own stories about race. Before you plunge into a book, invite participants to tell their own stories of how and when they first became conscious of race/class differences. Listen to the stories of others to gain a greater sense of common ground–and of differences that will enrich your time together.
  • Challenge your own biases. Our social locations—including our churches—often keep us separate from and ignorant about the experiences of people from other races and cultures and experiences. Invite former inmates and families into your community and listen to their experiences.
  • Speak from your own experience. Ask participants to express what they think, what they have experienced firsthand, and what they don’t yet understand. It is a challenge for most of us to talk about the racial divide in our culture; however, Christians are called to tear down walls.
  • Listen to learn. Part of our racialized heritage is that people of different races have learned to talk “at” each other, either as a defense against having to admit privilege or as a defense against being subjected to further repression. Even in 2015, there are people who seldom if ever socialize, pray or worship with, or talk honestly with people across lines of race/ethnicity, culture and class. Use this study time to hear with new ears those aspects of society about which you may have little experience.
  • Draw from Biblical examples of both those who challenged institutional/social oppression and those who took advantage of it. Ruth the Moabite, the plot against the Hebrews in the Book of Esther, the arrest and Crucifixion of Jesus, the beheading of John the Baptist. Each of these stories are about oppression of those considered “less than” by people and systems who deemed some “superior” to others who were “inferior.” Be prepared to challenge your own thinking about how these notions may apply to today’s society, including the Church. Pastors and worship planners: find ways to include these themes in worship and Christian education.
  • Respect that people of color and white people have had different social experiences. Same with poor people and middle- and upper-income people. Example: Last Halloween, a family in Tennessee hung effigies of people with black faces (made from garbage bags) from the trees in their yard as a joke. Many white people responding on social media expressed outrage that black people would object to a joke. “They are too sensitive and see racism in everything,” as one Facebook responder said. Lynching black people was a common terrorist practice in the post-Civil War and early 20th century era in Tennessee and across the south.  So what may seem harmless to someone who is not black, may evoke totally different fears and anxieties in some who is.
  • Stick with the topic “mass incarceration and racism.” Because racism is such a volatile and uncomfortable topic, some will be tempted to shift the conversation to other forms of injustice, or to talk only in general terms about the criminal justice system. Keep the focus and stick with this topic until your discomfort passes and you are willing to engage. Note questions and concerns that do not pertain to this topic and plan for future discussions on other justice issues without shortchanging this one.
  • Learn your specific community.  Young black and Latino men are disproportionately jailed and imprisoned in the United States. However, in your local setting, it may be other people of color, poor white people, women, or people from indigenous ethnic groups. Invite leaders working on prison reform and advocacy in your area to speak to your study group. Talk to your local juvenile court judge about trends in your community.
  • After you learn, act. Your congregations and pastor can make a difference. You can mentor, advocate, pray for, support families (of victims and offenders) and invite. Partner with other religious or community groups who are successful at restorative justice, mentoring at-risk youth, prison reform work or ministry with people who are incarcerated. Pick a focus and build on it. For ideas, see the description of ministries of reform advocacy and support for those in and coming out of prison done by The Riverside Church in New York, and the Oklahoma Annual Conference.

In Mass Incarceration and Race: How Must Christians Respond, every person interviewed recommended several books, including Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book, The New Jim Crow. Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: 2012). These resources are listed below.

Recommended Resources on Mass Incarceration and Race

  • Study Guide for the New Jim Crow and Bearing Witness: A Nation in Chains. An audiovisual resource created by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which seeks to engage people of faith in address “critical needs of social justice.”
  • The New Jim Crow Study Guide and Call to Actionby Veterans of Hope, 2015. A 58-page, structured study based on Michelle Alexander’s book.
  • Drucker, Ernest.A Plague of Prisons: Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration. The New Press, 2013.
  • Greene, Michael. A Way Out of No Way: The Economic Prerequisites of the Beloved Community. Cascade Books, 2014.
  • Hoffman, Joan Serra, ed. Beyond Suppression: Global Perspectives on Youth Violence (Global Crime and Justice Series). Praeger Press, 2010.
  • Levad, Amy. Redeeming a Prison Society. A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration. Fortress Press, 2014.
  • Murakawa, Naomi. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (Studies in Postwar American Political Development) Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Myers, Bryant. Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (revised edition).  Orbis Books, 2011.
  • Noguera, Pedro and Aída Hurtado, eds. Invisible No More: Understanding the Disenfranchisement of Latino Men and Boys. Routledge Press, 2011.
  • Tochluk, Shelly. Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It (second edition). R&L Education, 2010.
  • Weissman, Marsha. Prelude to Prison: Student Perspectives on School Suspension (Syracuse Studies on Peace and Conflict Resolution) Syracuse University Press, 2015.
  • Mass Incarceration,” a 7-minute segment of the PBS series Religion and Ethics. First aired Jan. 13, 2012. This resource is a good discussion starter, perhaps to introduce the topic for group study.
  • United Methodist Church and Restorative Justice. A video intro from Rethink Church. United Methodist Communications. Additional information on UMC beliefs.
  • Video testimonies (3) from former and current inmates who credit United Methodist-related prison ministries with helping them transform their personal lives: Cascade UMC, Atlanta; Woodlands UMC, Houston; Cape Elizabeth (Maine) UMC.
  • Video story of the “Life After Prison” ministry and Matthew Taufete’e from UMTV, United Methodist Communications.
  • National Public Radio from November 2013 on the “Ban the Box” issue.
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