Faith Communities Must Stop Funding Programs That Reinforce Mass Incarceration

Very late at night, nearly a decade ago, I found myself responsible for collecting money to post bail for nearly 100 people in Boston. These were all individuals who had been arrested as part of the Occupy Boston encampment. The Mass Bail Fund was still in its infant stages. Cash simply had to be collected from all those gathered. As residents of a largely Catholic city, Bostonians gravitated toward sharing their money with the man in a clerical collar. While I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, that was not the moment for theological discussion. If I needed to be seen as a priest, called “father” a couple of times, so be it. The funds were collected, and the people were released. But is the need for fundraising for bail coming to an end?

National attention has turned to Illinois after the passage of the Pretrial Fairness Act. As previous Truthout contributors have already noted, there is much to celebrate and yet there is still more work to be done. I find myself wondering, What is the role of people of faith and religious communities in this moment? As cash bail begins to end, how do we ensure that people are getting free and jails are closing down?

Across the country, nearly three-quarters of those held in jails are held pretrial. In Illinois, that number is closer to 90 percent, the overwhelming majority Black. As the Pretrial Fairness Act moves toward implementation, closures of county jails across the state will become an even greater political possibility. This is where faith communities can be both an asset and an obstacle.

By now it has become somewhat common knowledge that religion, particularly Protestant Christianity, holds an enormous amount of the responsibility for creating the white supremacist mass incarceration system in the United States. Grassroots organizers, faith leaders and academic scholars have all highlighted the culpability of American religion in the crisis we live in today. With the growing prison reform and abolition movements, religious communities are playing complex roles in both expanding the carceral systems and resisting them.

Faith-based initiatives in prisons have sprung up not only in the United States, but across the globe. The Christian supremacist organization Prison Fellowship, founded by former Nixon aide Charles W. Colson, has programs in prisons all across the United States and throughout the world. These are programs that claim “to return prisoners to their right relationship with Christ” and ready them to be moral citizens. This multimillion-dollar “nonprofit” claims to be fighting to end mass incarceration, but the program model thrives on the revolving doors of prisons.

A danger facing those working to end pretrial incarceration is the development of new faith-based programs that reinforce carceral practices, Christian hegemony, white supremacy, queer/trans-antagonism, and a multitude of other oppressions. As those facing pretrial incarceration search for justification for their release, connection to problematic faith-based social service agencies can become one of the few options affirmed by the court.

What might faith communities do instead of searching for funding to run programs in collaboration with agents of the prison-industrial complex?

Muslim leaders in the Chicago-based Believers Bail Out offer a model of faith-based abolitionist organizing. Rooting themselves in the tradition of zakat, one of the five tenants of Islam that calls for solidarity and piety through the sharing of wealth, organizers encourage sibling Muslims to contribute financially to efforts that would free incarcerated Muslims. On its website, inviting others to join in, the group offers this theological reflection, “Muslims using their money to free other Muslims from bondage has a long history and carries spiritual rewards. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, the emancipation of the enslaved, freeing those in bondage, was always considered a noble act.”

As the need for cash to pay bail begins to go away, Believers Bail Out is clear that reinforcing carceral practices in faith-based programs will not be part of the group’s future. In a statement released on June 22, 2020, organizers affirmed a commitment to abolition, including supporting #8toAbolition. The affirmation specifically lifts up the statement that, “the end goal of these reforms is not to create a better, friendlier, or more community-oriented police or prisons. Instead, we hope to build toward a society without police or prisons, where communities are equipped to provide for their safety and well-being.” Leaders in Believers Bail Out are not imagining prisons with Muslim-specific wings or Muslim-led programs that partner with the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. Instead, they are connecting to the abolitionist theologies that guide work for collective liberation and freedom.

Following in the Catholic Worker tradition and the visions of Dorothy Day, the Abolition Apostles are also offering another religious alternative to faith-based carceral programs. The organization’s programs are clear and invite participants to plug in with ease. Central to this work is a pen-pal program, ensuring that all those involved on the outside of prison are in authentic relationships with those behind the wall. Abolition Apostles encourages material aid and prisons visits. The group is also engaging in direct advocacy for individuals, utilizing their network to gather letters of support for parole and other efforts to secure immediate freedom. They are building out a reentry support program and have plans to create a house of hospitality for those visiting loved ones behind bars. These types of programs center the needs and leadership of those most directly affected by the violence of the prison-industrial complex. The Abolition Apostles root themselves in their Christian theology and do so with an expansive approach that welcomes theological diversity.

These existing organizations are not the only abolitionist options available for faith communities. The New Sanctuary Movement has shown the power of religious organizations offering sanctuary to immigrants/migrants resisting deportation. The sanctuary toolkit opens with quotes from sacred texts belonging to the largest three Abrahamic traditions. While specifically focused on immigration/migration solidarity, the legacy of religious communities hiding people from the state dates back to the 18th century, when some churches offered sanctuary to Black people who had escaped slavery.

Can we imagine a network of religious communities that would provide sanctuary to someone, or many someones, avoiding pretrial incarceration? Such action would be the opposite of colluding with carceral structures. Instead, providing sanctuary in this way places religious organizations in an antagonistic relationship with the state by choosing freedom and liberation for people over assimilation into the prison-industrial complex. Congregations around the country, including the First Unitarian Church in Louisville, provided safe space for protesters during the summer and fall protests of 2020. These acts of defiance prove that there is possibility and potential in faith community resistance to the prison-industrial complex.

As a parish minister, I have the blessing to serve a congregation made up of beautiful, dedicated and passionate people. We are having conversations about what it means to defund the police, practice transformative justice and imagine the possibilities of abolition. With more reforms coming to the criminal legal system, faith communities must make a choice between reinforcing the carceral state or resisting it. It is a moral imperative that we choose the side of justice, liberation and freedom.