Imprisoning Our Dignity: America’s Sin of Mass Incarceration


By Molly Crawford

Mass incarceration does not appear on many people’s list of pressing respect for life issues. However, an estimated 2.2 million lives play out behind bars at this moment. These lives are often held in dangerous, inhumane conditions while their families and communities are ripped apart. This crisis is especially threatening for communities of color, where of the black men born in 2001 it is expected one out of three, one-third of the black male population will likely be incarcerated at some point in their life.[1]

Behind the statistic are real lives suffering under the system that does little to rehabilitate individuals or stop crimes. We spend billions each year to keep people in jail with diminishing returns in public safety. Tactics such as solitary confinement and capital punishment remain in use despite being repeatedly shown to be inhumane and ineffective. In the world beyond prison walls, children grow up without parents, school systems treat students as criminals, and communities suffer while addictions like drugs and alcohol continue to shatter lives. All this from a system that was designed to protect society and help heal its fractures, but instead uses tax-payer money to oppress communities. So why isn’t mass incarceration combatted as a practice that threatens the dignity of life?

massincarcerationThe truth is it is much easier to vote for a candidate that promises to overturn Roe v. Wade than actually face the ways we are complicit in cultivating a culture of death for ourselves and others. Widespread systematic injustices that kill such as poverty, racism and environmental degradation rarely make an appearance on the pro-life platform because they are not the lives we are taught to protect, in fact, society relies on their denial. Kelly Brown Douglas’ question “How was I to raise my black child in a society in which his body is not cherished?”[2] demonstrates what is lacking in our current pro-life action. We have failed to protect whole communities because we have failed to create social narratives that cherish these bodies as God does. We are scared to interrogated the depth of our sin of mass incarceration so as to see these lives as more than just statistics because that forces us to turn in on ourselves and question what is wrong with us as people that we could lock away so many from our community and barely even notice. Mass incarceration is more than a failure of a system it is a spiritual failure of our country.

What then does it mean to be pro-life in this age of mass incarceration? Mark Lewis Taylor in The Theological and the Political, writes of shifting the weight of the world from death dealing concentration to live giving extension.[3] Taylor’s argument is more complex than can be done justice here, but the notion of life giving extension conveys that life needs space to flourish. Just as plants need room to grow, humans need to be able to take up space, to have their existence recognized and valued in society. Mass incarceration is the ultimate refusal of space, it is the culmination of years of exclusion and dehumanization directed at specific communities. For me, the true essence of pro-life action is best seen by those who assert their dignity, their right to exist amidst the world that attempts to extinguish them. The recent protests against police brutality and gun violence are powerful examples of people claiming space to assert the dignity of their lives. These examples can help us radically rethink pro-life as spirituality that affirms the God given the beauty of one’s own life and makes space for other lives to grow.

131760-131760One night in a small chapel in the Manhattan House of Detention, I saw this life affirming action as men found a place to be themselves, striving for healing and new chances. In essence, they claimed a space for their lives, lives that are not valued in society’s narratives. Their example challenged me not just to see criminal justice reform as a pro-life issue, but to rethink how my daily life contributes to the denial of living space for others. How do my assumptions about others limit how they express themselves? How do my poorly hidden thoughts of pity demoralize those struggling to survive on the streets? How does my selfish consumption of the earth’s resources extinguish other lives around the globe? The concept of pro-life has gotten so caught up in legal arguments that we fail to see the actual lives we influence every day. All of us make decisions daily about how much space and resources we deserve and thus, how little others have to live on. Our actions can either give space to the lives around us to flourish or greedily stifle them.

If we truly want to combat the culture of death around us, we must act like gardeners in the world, making room for life to grow. The existence of mass incarceration should not just move us to the streets in protest but to our knees in repentance for how our continued denial of space within our narratives, our government, and our communities has resulted in the oppression and death of so many. It is not just lives that deserve respect despite what they may have done behind bars, they are lives that reflect back to us the death we have dealt by neglecting the common good. To truly address these systems that diminish life, we must go to the root of our own lives and communities, make space for the forgotten, the disliked and feared. Listen to their stories, allow their lives to take up space and become known within our society, maybe then we can respect their lives as we do our own.

[1] Incarceration | The Sentencing Project | Accessed March 12 2018

[2] Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God,  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015, p. 45.

[3] Mark Lewis Taylor, The Theological and the Political: on the Weight of the World, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011.

Molly Crawford is a Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) student at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. Her research interests within systematic theology and ethics focus on questions of racial justice and oppression. She discovered prison ministry in New York and continues this ministry work in Boston. She received her B.A. in Theology from Fordham University in 2017.