Five Questions for Amy Levad: Redeeming a Prison Society

Publication Year: 2014

Bradley Burroughs: The book begins with the claim that the United States currently faces a “crisis of justice.” As you see it, what are the central features of that crisis?

Amy Levad: The central feature of our crisis of justice in the United States is that our criminal justice systems are fundamentally entwined with social injustice. We now have the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, and we incarcerate more than two million people. Despite slight drops in the number of people incarcerated in the United States, mainly due to budgetary cutbacks caused by the Great Recession, we still are a “prison society.”

Many people think that more people are incarcerated in the United States because of increasing crime rates over the last forty years or because we are more criminal here than in other countries. However, the data do not support these conclusions. Crime rates have fluctuated a great deal over the last four decades, and crime rates in the U.S. are not significantly different than crime rates in other similar nations. Another conclusion many people draw is that we incarcerate greater numbers of people who are African-American or Latino/a because they commit more crime. However, this conclusion can also not be supported by criminological data.

The main causes for our high incarceration rates are rooted in social injustice–economic, political, social, and cultural factors that particularly mark young, poor, African-American and Latino males as inherently criminal and dangerous and that isolate their communities with concentrated poverty, poor educational systems, and little political power. Unfortunately, responding to these social injustices by using jails, prisons, and probation tends to exacerbate these problems, creating a cycle of social injustice mediated by criminal justice systems.

What was your inspiration for your project?

I originally became interested in prisons when someone who is close to me was arrested and sentenced to prison for a drug offense. Coincidently, I saw the film Slam, starring Saul Williams, during the same time period. The film highlights the struggles of a young African-American man caught up in the criminal justice system for a drug offense similar to my loved one’s. While my experience of the criminal justice system was cushioned to some degree because of my loved one’s racial and class identity, this film helped me to see how this system harms people who are not white and from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds much more severely. I became personally involved through my loved one, but once exposed to the social injustices of our criminal justice systems, I could not turn away even when she escaped the system.

As I learned more about our crises of social and criminal justice, I turned to my church for guidance and support. Unfortunately, I found little help in terms of pastoral care, theological insight, or moral leadership. My frustration with the church lead me into the long-term project of thinking theologically and morally about criminal justice and its connections to social injustice; this book is only a small slice of this project. I hope that this book helps to fill the lacuna within my tradition about these issues.

Why should the general public be interested in this work?

Events over the last few months should make clear why the general public should be interested in this work. The deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown illuminate the precarious positions of African-American men and boys with respect to our criminal justice systems. It strikes me as a mistake to look at the minutiae of these cases in isolation from their broader context. Deaths in encounters with police are the proverbial tip of the iceberg of issues in our criminal justice systems that are inflected with social injustice. With one out of every three African-American boys born today likely to serve time in jail or prison, we need to reconsider what criminal justice looks like in our society. We also need a renewed commitment to social justice that would uphold the value of every human life, including black and brown lives that have been so denigrated. As long as we turn our backs upon this issue, we will continue to be a prison society that depends upon cutting short the potential of some members of our communities.

What two or three specific, concrete changes in the criminal justice system or in the church’s relation to it do you think would be most helpful in making our society more just?

The Church is called to recognize the image of God in every person, especially those people who are pushed to the margins of our society. Prisons and jails are about as far out to the margins of our society as we can get–and so churches should be there. I see two fronts on which the Church should approach our crises of criminal and social justice. First, we need to help reconceive how our society responds to people who commit crimes. Our criminal justice systems are currently based on retributive and punitive ideals that are not consonant with the message of forgiveness found in Christian scripture. I have found restorative justice and certain models of rehabilitation better contribute to the reincorporation of people who have committed crime back into our communities. The Church could do much more to advocate for these practices in public policy, as well as working for their implementation in local settings.

Second, we need to change the context of social injustice that our current criminal justice systems depend upon to continue to populate our prisons and jails. We need to join a social movement to end mass incarceration. This movement needs to be interfaith and ecumenical, and it needs to cross racial, ethnic, and class boundaries that often divide our churches. This social movement needs to aim towards decreasing violence in neighborhoods marked by concentrated poverty, improving educational systems for all children, providing support for struggling families, and increasing meaningful employment opportunities for all members of our communities. More fundamentally, this movement needs to address the social and cultural messages that undergird the identification of young, African-American males as criminal and dangerous. We cannot rest simply with criminal justice reform; we must reform ourselves and our communities to ensure that we uphold the image of God in every person in our midst.

What is one question that you wish someone would ask you about your work, and how would you answer?

I hope that anyone who becomes familiar with my work would ask how he or she could get involved in dismantling mass incarceration. I’ve endeavored in the last two chapters of the book to provide specific and practical courses of action that could address our criminal and social justice crises. In researching those chapters, I learned about amazing people doing what they can, where they are, with what they have. They should be an example to all of us. We cannot solve these problems on an individual basis; doing so will require a movement. But we do need individuals to take part in the movement however they can—whether as educators who can interrupt the cradle-to-prison pipeline, whether as lawyers who can provide legal council to people caught up in the criminal justice system, whether as healthcare providers who can demand better mental health and substance abuse treatment, whether as voters who can all upon politicians to drop the “tough on crime” mantra for saner, more just responses to broken communities. Of course, there are innumerable other roles that need to be taken up by concerned citizens as well. Regardless of the role any particular reader finds suitable, it is imperative that we all find ways to take action.

Amy Levad

About Amy Levad

Dr. Amy Levad is a co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. She is Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN, specializing in moral theology. Dr. Levad has published significantly on the theology and ethics of criminal justice, including two monographs: Restorative Justice: Theories and Practices of Moral Imagination and Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration.


Bradley Burroughs

About Bradley Burroughs

A native of western New York, Bradley Burroughs earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. He lives in Dayton, Ohio, and teaches at United Theological Seminary.

Bradley Burroughs

Bradley Burroughs

A native of western New York, Dr. Bradley Burroughs earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. Integrating his research in contemporary Christian ethics, modern social theory, and understandings of virtue, his first book project analyzes competing understandings of politics in contemporary Christian ethics. Brad lives in Dayton, Ohio, and teaches at United Theological Seminary.

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