Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Let the Cries of the Captives Come before You: Discerning Theological Wisdom in the Modern Penitentiary

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Let the Cries of the Captives Come before You: Discerning Theological Wisdom in the Modern Penitentiary

Article excerpt

According to the contemporary Anglican theologian David Ford, "prophetic scriptural wisdom is inextricably involved with the discernment of cries."1 In this essay, I examine how contemporary theological reflection could benefit from a renewed focus on attending to the cries of imprisoned men and women.

I begin by offering a brief overview and critique of the rationale that led to the creation of the penitentiary system in the United States. In doing so, I draw attention to some assumptions implicit with the Book of Common Prayer rites for the Visitation of Prisoners published around the same time. I then turn to contemporary examples from my experience serving as a chaplain in a maximum security prison: teaching theology classes in which we discussed works like Augustine's Confessions. I conclude with a reflection on certain insights and exchanges from two theology seminars conducted in the prison by David and Deborah Ford.

Origins of the Modem Penitentiary: A Brief Sketch

Despite the growing awareness of the problems of mass incarceration in the United States, it seems the plight of men and women in prison remains rarely discussed in our churches, and the issue of criminal justice reform is seldom taken up by our church leaders. This was not always the case.

Among the first and most influential groups dedicated to penal reform in the United States was the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, formed in 1786.2 Bishop William White, rector of Christ Church Philadelphia and presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, served as the Philadelphia Society's first president. He held this office for forty-nine years, until his death in 1836.

Reformers like White saw the Philadelphia Society's mission to alleviate the miseries of the imprisoned as a natural outworking of Christian responsibility. In 1787, White wrote, "To a people professing Christianity, it will be sufficient only to mention that acts of charity to the miserable tenants of prisons are upon record among the first of Christian duties."3 For White, showing mercy to condemned criminals was not only our Christian duty, it was also more "civilized." In a letter criticizing the prevailing criminal justice system, which frequently inflicts "death" and "other odious punishments," he opined,

Let us indulge the pleasing hope, that this system of ignorance and barbarism will no longer continue to the disgrace of the nations and governments, who are now arrived at the highest state of civilization, and who profess to be actuated by benign and salutary influences of Christianity.-1

The Philadelphia Society's favored "cure" for the apparent injustices of the older penal system was the penitentiary-an institution designed to facilitate the reconciliation of penitent sinners and fully restore them to society as contributing citizens.0 Over time, members of the Philadelphia Society successfully lobbied for the legislative changes and funding needed to put their ideas into practice. With a new prison design that was architecturally compatible with their system of prison discipline, they were convinced: "The Penitentiary will be, strictly speaking, an apparatus for the expeditious, certain, and economical eradication of vice, and the production ofreformation."6

Looking back, it is remarkable to see the reformers' level of faith, not only in the possibility of the rehabilitation and redemption of criminal offenders, but in their own ability to create a system that could effectuate this transformation. New advances in science, technology, and medicine bolstered their confidence at the time. One of the Philadelphia Society's founding members, Dr. Benjamin Rush, conjectured,

Should the same industry and ingenuity which have produced these triumphs of medicine over diseases and death be applied to the moral science, it is highly probable, that most of the baneful vices, which deform the human breast, and convulse the nations of the earth, might be banished from the world. …

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