What If It’s Not the Prisoner Who Needs to Repent?

by Jesse Lava

My mom was Catholic and my father is Jewish. I guess that means I’ve got guilt on both sides. But beyond the guilt, I was taught that faith, at its best, could be a vehicle for repentance, redemption, and justice. Yet now that I’m working on issues involving the U.S. criminal justice system, I’ve found that our country doesn’t leave much room for those nice things. Just the guilt.

Mass incarceration is now one of our country’s greatest sins—one of which too many of us are shamefully unaware. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. That’s more than China, more than Russia, more than anyone. About half of our prisoners landed behind bars for nonviolent offenses. And there’s a profound racial bias embedded in this system: African Americans use and sell drugs at the same rate as other races but are imprisoned for it at a far higher rate, comprising 56% of those behind bars for drug offenses.

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“No substantive social objectives are served by the involuntary confinement of individuals.”

On the contrary, prisons contribute more to the perpetuation of crime than to its correction. There is massive evidence that “prison and jail life are seriously destructive of the health of human personality” (Minutes, UPCUSA, 1972, Part I, p. 430).



Such injustice is what led my organization, Beyond Bars, to produce a short documentary called Redemption of the Prosecutor, which aims to engage Christians on mass incarceration. This just-released piece provides a twist on the classic redemption tale: instead of a prisoner finding Jesus and redeeming himself while in prison, a prosecutor (and devout Christian) starts teaching in a prison, hears inmates’ stories, and wonders if he’s been the bad guy all along.

[wpcol_3fifth id=”” class=”” style=””]We collaborated on the piece with the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ. Its themes tie directly into Christian teachings on personal virtue and social justice. Locked away in a system built on vengeance, most inmates do not have access to education, job training, or drug treatment. They don’t receive the tools needed to contribute more constructively to society. Our nation has classified prisoners not as human beings with dignity, but as something sub-human, something disposable, and on that basis has warehoused them in a degrading network of cages. Yet this sub-human treatment has not prevented real human pain in real human families, as 2.7 million children now have a parent behind bars. [/wpcol_3fifth] [wpcol_2fifth_end id=”” class=”” style=””]


The ultimate objective of the criminal justice system should be “one of reconciliation rather than one of retribution.” (Minutes, PCUS, 1978, Part I, p. 202).


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Presbyterian policy has opposed prisons in general as the primary means of addressing criminal behavior since 1972. Not only have we been collectively guilty in not addressing these problems, but also trends of social injustice and punishment over rehabilitation have significantly worsened in the last thirty years.Resolution Calling for the Abolition of For-Profit Private Prisons, approved by the 215th (2003) General Assembly, p. 14.

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The question for us is not whether we can be forceful enough in wagging our fingers at those who have committed crimes. It’s whether we can curb our own complicity in a broken criminal justice system and take action to achieve reform. Congregations nationwide are screening Redemption of the Prosecutor and holding discussions about it as one way of engaging on mass incarceration. But there are countless others. Whatever we do to engage, we as a society will be able to repent only when we acknowledge this structural sin, facing it squarely so we can look at what we have done, and then, crucially, taken steps to achieve change. The end is not the guilt, but the redemption.[/wpcol_1half_end]

[wpcol_3fifth id=”” class=”” style=””]Watch the trailer, and request Redemption of the Prosecutor as a DVD or as an exclusive online link.
Jesse Lava is the campaign director of Beyond Bars. A project of Brave New Foundation[i], Beyond Bars produces videos and engages social media to fight mass incarceration. Jesse has a master’s in public policy from Harvard and a bachelor’s in government from Wesleyan University.[/wpcol_3fifth] [wpcol_2fifth_end id=”” class=”” style=””]Formed last year, the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network is committed to “ending the mass incarceration crisis and putting people before profit.” Read Unbound’s 2012 article, People, not Profit: Presbyterians Form Criminal Justice Network.[/wpcol_2fifth_end] 


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