Most people don’t know that 95% of the prison population will be released, returning to the same disinvested zip codes that created conditions ripe for hyper policing and incarceration. Conditions such as inadequate access to quality education, reliable transportation, lucrative jobs with a livable wage and healthcare including treatment for mental health and substance use. Moreover, there are over 40,000 collateral consequence or reentry barriers that prohibit individuals impacted by the carceral system from successfully navigating society upon release. Nearly half of the restrictions are related to employment. Even more troubling is the reality that prisons and jails offer limited educational programs and resources that are necessary and critical in preparing incarcerated persons to flourish upon release.
While within the prison abolition and reform movement, institutions of higher education have initiated programs to offer higher education in prison, those programs only serve a small number of incarcerated persons. In 2016, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that only 35 percent of state prisons provide college-level courses, and these programs only serve 6 percent of incarcerated individuals nationwide. The unfortunate truth is that the lack of access to quality education has been the historical experience of the vast majority of the correctional population. While Reagan and Bush Sr.’s “war on drugs” unleashed the full force of law enforcement and draconian drug laws on poor, black and brown communities, it was President Clinton’s 1994 Crime bill that ensured longer and harsher terms as well as eliminating 44% of prison education programs.
The research project Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families surveyed 1,080 formerly incarcerated individuals of which “67% reported they wanted to return to school, only 27% were able to, 3 in 5 were unable to afford school and 1 in 4 were denied or barred from education loans because of their criminal conviction.” Not only are directly impacted individuals interested in the higher education, but so are prospective employers. Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute reported in their study Recovery: Job Growth and Requirements Through 2020 that by 2020, “65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.” If we as a society want to mitigate the barriers the lead to recidivism (80% 2 years after release, 50% after 5 years) then we have to view higher education for those with the experience of incarceration as a human right, not a social privilege.
In response to these realities, how might seminaries and individuals in the service of liberative theologies and practices become co-laborers in the movement to abolish the carceral state. When we speak of prison abolition we are drawing on the works of Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, James Forman and Darnell Moore and many others who labor towards imagining into existence a world without prisons. In a recent lecture entitled Let’s Get Free: A Case for Abolition Theology, Darnell Moore said this about prison abolition:
“Abolition is a form of analysis and organizing practice that is not centered only on the removal of the systems that harms us. But the process of imaging into being the life soul affirming tools that ought to be go in the place of things that harm us…According to Wilson “abolition is figuring out how to work with people to make something rather than figuring out how to erase something.” Abolition is ultimately a politics and practice of creation, not just destruction. It demands that we broaden and diversify our imagination to activate, complicate and stretch what Robin D. G. Kelly calls our freedom dreams.”
With this vision of abolition, how might seminaries create programs of liberative theological education that intentionally mitigate the collateral consequences of incarceration while also working towards creating a world without prisons?
With the question in mind, when academic theological institutions in the service of liberatory theological education exercise their institutional agency and deploy their resources and networks beyond the academic institution, and directly serve marginalized communities, they create capacities to become institutions of solidarity-builders and justice-makers. Their institutional character takes on the from of leadership as servants of solidarity. Within the context of incarceration, these academic institutions become an incarnational presence of the exhortation in Hebrews 13:3 to remember prisoners as if you were imprisoned with them and people who are mistreated as if you were in there in place.
While McCormick Theological Seminary enters into the space of the higher education in the carceral institution, we do so on the heels of those academic institutions and scholar activists that came before us. We are indebted to their work and service so that we might enter into the movement for higher education in prisons and jails. Out of McCormick’s institutional culture to act justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with God, in 2018 a pilot certificate in theological studies was birthed under the leaderships of Dr. Jenny McBride, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics and Associate Dean of Doctor of Ministry Programs. After students in in the certificate program expressed enthusiasm and interest in more courses, in 2019 the certificate course grew into a the program for Theological Studies at Cook County Department of Corrections, led by project director Jia Johnson, MA. The program became part of McCormick’s commitments to community engagement and alumni relations. In May of 2020, the program grew into the Solidarity Building Initiative for Liberative Carceral Education at CCJ.
The program logo (at the top of the page) of the tree with raised fist etched into the bark and colorful leaves changing with the seasons symbolizes the ways in which the program pillars are rooted to grow in relationship with communities impacted by hyper incarceration. Collectively, the program praxis is oriented around 1) community and collaboration; 2) solidarity-building and justice-making; 3) creation of life-giving works and 4) growth as a creative process of transformation and liberation. The late ancestor Dr. James Cone rightly asserts that salvation means liberation. The heartbeat of the program is Jesus’ prophetic words in Luke 4:18:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
Our academic commitments to cultivate learning communities of holistic and mutual support expand beyond the jail classroom as outlined in our program pillars and COVID-19 Solidarity Initiative with Incarcerate Learners. Students in our program are aware that we are committed to continually exploring creative and life-giving practices and resources that offer peace, hope and light to the multitude of communities at Cook County Jail. We remind them that there is a village of faithful humans upholding them in the spirit of deep solidarity that Jesus demonstrated on the Cross.