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‘Rethinking Incarceration’

Author on justice, race and Jesus as a prisoner

3/23/2018, 9:34 a.m.
The problems in the United States’ criminal justice system go all the way back to slavery, according to Dominique DuBois ...
Dominique DuBois Gilliard speaks last month at the launch of his book “Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores” at Wilson Abbey in Chicago.

Religion News Service

CHICAGO

The problems in the United States’ criminal justice system go all the way back to slavery, according to Dominique DuBois Gilliard, who directs racial reconciliation work for the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Both slavery and incarceration are means of racial and social control, said Mr. Gilliard, who sees these controls working together throughout American history — from Jim Crow to lynchings to the war on drugs to the privatization of prisons.

“Mass incarceration, particularly from 1970 to the present, is just the latest articulation and iteration of it, not this new manifestation,” he said.

Building on the work of civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, Mr. Gilliard made those connections to a packed room at the launch of his book, “Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores,” recently at Wilson Abbey in Chicago.

He spoke afterward to Religion News Service about the role of Christians in criminal justice reform.

Are you hearing more people talk about criminal justice reform? If so, what do you think has brought this to the forefront of people’s minds?

I think we’ve finally gotten to the point where there’s bipartisan consensus that there’s a problem. Medical professionals also have gotten more vocal about how many people who are locked up actually need medical intervention instead of incarceration.

I would say the third factor — and maybe the most important factor — is that you’ve seen a lot more police chiefs and heads of departments bluntly say we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this problem. These are people who have chemical dependencies who need some kind of intervention that incarceration is not presently meeting.

It seems “criminal justice reform” can mean different things to different people. Can you talk about some problems you see within the criminal justice system?

I think our system of solitary confinement is hugely problematic. Right now, we have about 80,000 people who are locked up in solitary confinement every day, and oftentimes that consists of people being locked in a small cell in the dark in isolation, given contact with sunlight and human interaction for only one hour a day. That is not incarceration. That is torture.

Another problem is our juvenile justice system. We have 13 states that don’t have a minimum age for trying juveniles as adults. When juveniles are tried as adults, their sentences are more severe. They don’t have the luxury of having their record expunged when they turn 18.

Another problem with our criminal justice system is the way that people are oftentimes exploited for their labor and the ways in which companies and industries are profiteering off their labor. They do it in a way where they say they’re training them with job skills. But these same companies these people are working for behind bars for 10 or 15 years, becoming proficient at that labor, the day they get released and apply for a job there, they’re denied a job because of their criminal record.

Another issue that we know: In a number of states, pregnant women, when they give birth in the midst of their sentences, they’re forced to be shackled to a gurney in the midst of their delivery process. We know being born into that stress-induced state has irreversible cognitive impacts on the child, but we still haven’t changed the law in light of that.