By Preston Shipp
From the prosecutor’s office to advocacy for the imprisoned: a journey toward a new kind of justice.
The United States has an immense population of marginalized people locked away in its prisons. It is the largest prison population in the history of the world, approximately 2.3 million people.
As a result of America’s war on drugs, which has been waged over the past four decades and disproportionately against poor people of color, many of these people are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes. The collateral damage, both emotional and financial, of such mass incarceration to children, spouses, and entire communities cannot be calculated.
My first acquaintance with people who are imprisoned was from an antagonistic point of view. I was a prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office. Day after day, month after month, year after year, I wrote legal briefs and made arguments to the court about people I did not know. They had broken the law, and they needed to be punished.
Although I knew almost nothing about these people, I was convinced I was right and they were wrong. Our criminal justice system, like all principalities, thrives on these us/them dichotomies. There are good people and bad people. The people on whose cases I worked were bad people, criminals—murderers, rapists, robbers, thieves. All I knew about them was the worst thing they had ever done.
But I was one of the good guys, a prosecutor. In retrospect, I can see what a dangerous position that is for a Christian to be in, called as we are not to judge lest we be judged and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
My Damascus Road
My attitude toward people who are imprisoned began to change in the spring of 2007, when my friend Richard Goode, a professor of history at Lipscomb University in Nashville, called me about teaching the inaugural class in a prison college program. Richard’s vision was to take 15 university undergraduates to the Tennessee Prison for Women to study alongside 15 prisoners. The inmates would actually be enrolled as Lipscomb students and would be earning college credit toward a degree.
Richard was using academics to carve out a little space where the lines that divide us, in this case, literal fences and razor wire, didn’t count for as much. He was hoping to build a little “demonstration plot,” for reconciliation, to use Clarence Jordan’s term. (See related article, p. 8.)
Teaching that class served as a Damascus Road moment for me. As I got to know the women from the prison, I began to wonder why I spent my days making arguments to courts about people I did not know. Although many of the women had committed terrible, violent crimes, to a person they were all more than their worst moment.
They told their stories. And listening to their stories was the most impactful part of the class. The stories I heard from these women often involved prior trauma at the hands of a spouse or boyfriend, substance abuse, and finally a violent episode. Crime does not occur in a vacuum. Each woman had a heartbreaking story to tell of feeling trapped, hopeless, and desperate.
Juries do not hear all of these details. And I was confronted with the realization that had I been in their shoes, I may not have acted any differently. The good/bad, us/them dichotomy was obliterated. I came to see that we are all pretty much the same.
As firmly as I had believed in the criminal justice system as a young prosecutor, I became convinced the system was broken. The more I learned about the sheer size of the prison population; the number of people serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes; the way the system discriminates against people of color at every stage of the process; the way the system not only fails to rehabilitate offenders, but actually makes it harder for them to move forward and succeed by denying them the right to vote, access to public assistance, and opportunities for education and employment—the more I learned all of this, the more I came to hate the work I was called upon to do every day as a prosecutor.
I felt like I was betraying and denying what was best about my Christian faith—healing, redemption, forgiveness, mercy, and second chances—and also betraying my imprisoned friends. Therefore, I gave up my dream of being a successful prosecutor and quit my job.
Redemption vs. Retribution
This was more than a career decision. It was a discipleship decision. I could no longer hear about redemption on Sunday and serve as an agent of retribution on Monday. I could no longer read Jesus’ instruction to care for prisoners while arguing in favor of imprisoning them.
I was a cog in a wheel that was broken, and it was crushing individuals, families, and communities. Based on my reading of the gospel, I was called to stand in solidarity with those people, not in opposition to them. They, I had learned, were my neighbors.
The late Henri Nouwen wrote,
We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics. . . . To become neighbours is to bridge the gap between people. . . . Only when we have the courage to cross the street and look in one another’s eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.
This is the invitation—to regard each other as neighbors and refuse to sacrifice anyone to the prison-industrial complex. So how do we begin again?
Leaving Our Comfort Zones
One crucial step is education. There are many helpful resources available to help us think critically about the brokenness of the criminal justice system and the devastating effects of mass incarceration. Education, as we all know, is an experiment in waking up, and it is a never-
ending, noble task.
But we must not be content with reading a few books, watching a documentary, or attending a conference here and there. There are some lessons that simply cannot be learned in a classroom or book. As Richard Rohr is fond of saying, “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”
There is no substitute for leaving our comfort zones and going to places of darkness and suffering to be with people who are different from us, people who are at best overlooked and pushed to the side, at worst vilified and demonized as less-than-human. This, it seems to me, is Jesus’ clear mandate in Matthew 25. Proximity is absolutely crucial, and relationships are imperative.
I can say without hesitation that I have learned more about the nature of God and the gospel of love, peace, justice, and reconciliation from people in prison than in church services and religious schools. Again, Rohr writes,
Jesus did not call us to the poor and to the pain only to be helpful; he called us to be in solidarity with the real and for own transformation. It is often only after the fact we realize that they helped us in ways we never knew we needed. This is sometimes called “reverse mission.” The ones we think we are “saving” end up saving us, and in the process, redefine the very meaning of salvation!
This resonates with my own experience. My salvation, I have come to understand, is bound up with that of people behind bars. We have to be willing to leave our comfortable spaces and see what God is doing elsewhere, in places and among people that may intimidate us. I would suggest volunteering with a prison ministry or exploring a pen pal relationship with someone who is in prison.
However, how we visit people in prison may be as important as visiting at all. We must be mindful that when Jesus instructed us to visit the imprisoned, he did not say that we would be acting as Jesus to them. Quite the other way around. We are not being Jesus to them. The prisoners are being Jesus to us. When we go to a prison, we go to meet the Lord, not to introduce him.
Too often I’m afraid that traditional prison ministry is based on a model that the volunteers have something that the prisoners need, namely religion. The good are going to convert the bad. I have talked with people in prison who have been following Jesus for decades who have said that preachers are still telling them to repent and get saved. It is often a one-way relationship, with the religious volunteers preaching the sermons, saying the prayers, leading the songs, reading the Scriptures.
But if we adhere to the model articulated by Jesus, trusting that it is with the imprisoned that Jesus identifies, the posture with which I go into the prison changes completely. If I go to meet Jesus, I should expect not so much to talk, but to listen; not so much to teach, but to learn; not so much to transform, but to be transformed.
Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, puts it this way,
The Word became flesh to bring people together, to break down the walls of fear and hatred that separate people. That’s the vision of the incarnation. . . . Jesus came to change a world in which those at the top have privilege, power, prestige, and money while those at the bottom are seen as useless. . . . [O]ur deep need is to meet those on the other side of the wall, to discover their gifts, to appreciate them[.]
I am convinced this is the way of God’s peaceable kingdom. This is the kingdom come—to be reconciled to and experience solidarity with the other, the one who is overlooked, pushed aside, discarded, and condemned.
The kingdom consists of transformed people transforming the world, not settling for the narrative of offense and retribution, not willing for any to perish under the unfair weight of labels or be sacrificed to the spirit of institutionalized vengeance that hovers over our criminal justice system. Instead we recognize our common humanity and dignity as bearers of the divine image.
May the church make known to the principalities and powers the manifold wisdom of God.
Preston Shipp is a lawyer and a criminal justice reform advocate. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Sherisse, and their three children, Lila Joy, Ruby Faith, and Levi.