By Bill Mefford
Though the amazing documentary, 13TH, has been out for more than a couple of years, I only just recently watched it. It is described as featuring “scholars, activists and politicians [as they] analyze the criminalization of African Americans and the U.S. prison boom.” I highly recommend it because it rightly illustrates the intersection of racism and mass incarceration and how this has become big business for an increasing number of corporations.
At the same time, I could not help but realize that among the many voices analyzing the reasons for the explosion in the prison population in the last fifty years, none of them were religious progressives. The documentary has a number of significant voices of criminologists and activists, especially activists who themselves have experienced incarceration, which is the primary reason why this is such a crucial documentary to see. However, the religious voices they feature were all white, male, conservative Christians. And I do not have to remind you that it was white, conservative, Christian men who are most responsible for mass incarceration (Nixon, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, Congress, etc.).
More importantly, it has been conservative, white, Christian men who initiated and maintained and vigorously defended slavery because of their commitment to an unrestrained free market economy. And that same commitment to this deranged and unbiblical ideology has given rise in the present to corporations that, feeding the lucrative business of high-priced lobbying, have moved Congress to privatize government services so that mass incarceration remains in place. In short, you cannot hold to a an unrestrained free market economy and claim to be working for the end of mass incarceration. You cannot do it.
But conservative Christian organizations do it everyday and unfortunately, their voices were featured rather than critiqued in 13TH.
Here is why this troubles me. For ten years I helped lead and mobilize United Methodists in their work on addressing mass incarceration. The United Methodist Church was a leader in divesting from private prison corporations because, thanks to a grassroots movement, the church did exactly that in 2012. Privatization is a major driver and enormous benefactor from harsh “get-tough-on-crime” legislation and though the documentary focuses a considerable amount of time on private prisons and their nefarious impact on people of color and the way in the criminal justice system consumes black and brown lives, no one from the United Methodist Church is interviewed. Instead, they have several white, conservative, Christian men, two of whom I know have had their quotes praising the work of private prisons on the website of at least one of the leading privatization corporations. And they praise the work of these corporations because they remain committed to the unbiblical belief that an unrestrained free market economy is fair and because those corporations let conservative Christian organizations proselytize the inmates who are held captive. Talk about a gospel that doesn’t liberate!
Though conservative groups like Prison Fellowship work closely with corporations and with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is responsible for pushing forward harmful legislation such as Stand Your Ground laws and anti-immigrant legislation that has driven up the numbers of those incarcerated, they were still given substantive air time in this important documentary instead of progressive religious people who have worked for decades on these issues, and who continue to do so. In fact, I am shocked that people from groups like Prison Fellowship participated in this project at all because, at least when I worked for the UMC, they actually never used the term “mass incarceration” (and none of them used it in the film either). Further, none of the Prison Fellowship employees I worked alongside of held to the framing of the criminal justice system as innately racist. I tried to insert these terms numerous times in coalition letters and was blocked each time because conservative Christian groups refused to acknowledge either of these realities. Yet, again, their voices were featured when they should be critiqued.
I do not want to dissuade anyone from viewing the documentary, but I am willing to bet that for the numbers of people who have watched it, very few have identified the lack of progressive religious voices. Except for my friend Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons who rightly and regularly points this out, the lack of progressive religious people in projects such as this has become so common place we hardly realize it.
The truth is, there simply would be no no criminal justice reform in the last ten years without progressive religious people. The progressive faith coalition on Capitol Hill, the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, is the largest faith coalition working on this issue. The coalition was instrumental in helping to pass the Second Chance Act in 2008, the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, the implementation of PREA standards (Prison Rape Elimination Act), the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act of 2015, the First Step Act of 2018, along with a number of other state bills regarding prison standards, sentencing reform, and reentry bills.
Without progressive religious people, these things do not get done.
Further, it was in 2015 when Senator Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke against sentencing reform legislation on the floor of the Senate. The entire criminal justice coalition on Capitol Hill was pretty down since this was to have been the year to focus on this much-needed aspect of reform, but it was progressive faith leaders in Iowa who, in a period of nine months, flipped Senator Grassley on his stance on sentencing reform. This led to the passage of a bipartisan sentencing reform legislation through his committee. This formed the basis of what ultimately became the First Step Act, which passed last year. And no national conservative Christian groups were directly involved in this work in Iowa. There were likely conservative Christians in Iowa who were involved because progressives work with everyone, but the focus was not on maintaining unrestrained free markets or other peculiar ideologies. Instead, the focus for religious progressives was on the suffering of people most impacted by mass incarceration and that is what fuels the passion for most progressive religious people.
But for a lot of reasons, progressive religious people – who are simply more effective in mobilization efforts and coalition-building – are left out of these conversations and left out of these kinds of films. The media, foundations, and even some nonreligious coalitions and allies in DC, have adopted the horrible practice of bifurcating religious people – segregating conservatives and progressives and opting to pour obscene (and largely wasted) amounts of money into conservative groups. This mistake is made over and over again in issue after issue. And people suffer for it. But it happens repeatedly because these same entities - the media, foundations, and DC leaders - rhetorically support ending mass incarceration, but only so far as the value of an unrestrained free market economy remains untouched. Thus, we do not end mass incarceration and we instead focus on doing small reforms that allow a racist criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex to remain in place and even more deeply entrenched because we are fooled into believing we have done something when our changes barely scratch the surface.
This not only is bad practice, it is completely unnecessary. Let me share just one example (and I could share a number of these). Back in 2008, when I was with the UMC and we were working on the Second Chance Act, we flew in a United Methodist constituent from an important district we needed to help the bill move forward. I didn’t know him very well, but I was impressed with his passion for those directly impacted by the criminal justice system and his ministry among returning citizens. He was rock solid and was completely in support of our framing of the innate racism of the criminal justice system and the need for revolutionary reforms.
Towards the end of his quick trip to DC we were on an elevator and he turned to me suddenly and said how impressed he was with my work and passion for criminal justice reform. I was about to thank him for the compliment and his genuine encouragement when he then said that he was a strict conservative and did not support any of the other work me or my colleagues did.
I was a little stunned, but then I realized that I talked to him about the issue of mass incarceration and the inherent racism of the system the exact same way I talked to someone who identifies themselves as progressive. The most important thing is not theological or ideological leanings. The important thing is the passion we have for people directly impacted by mass incarceration. When we focus on the passion for the people directly impacted we need not segregate conservatives from progressives and formulate different talking points.
Sadly, the media, foundations, and far too many leaders in DC favoring criminal justice reform neglect passion and engage in the work of religious segregation. So, yes, please do watch this important film, but also realize that voices are missing. These are the voices that are greatly responsible for the small steps that have thus far been taken and they are the voices that are busy doing the work even today. I can almost hear them.