The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Visiting Prisons

But What If We Have Freed All the Prisoners?

by Lauren Winner

Gospel Reading: Luke 4:14-21

For Sunday, January 27, 2013: Year C—Epiphany 3

I am writing this from the classroom of a women’s prison in central North Carolina. The classroom is in a trailer, kind of like the trailer in which you might have had overflow classes at your middle school.

I come here each week to teach a course on prayer. I never ask the students why they are in prison, but by now I know: some of them are here for killing abusive husbands or partners. Some are here for drug crime. Some are here for failing to intervene in a husband’s sexual abuse of their children. Some are only here for a year or two; others have been in the prison system for decades.

And here comes Jesus, quoting Isaiah, coming to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.

World Leader of Incarceration

America incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than does any other western nation. As attorney Lisa Bloom summarizes, “The United States leads the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens. We imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth, including China which has four times our population, or in human history.” Over two million people are currently locked in American prisons.[1]

Or, to put the same figure another way: “The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”[2]

We also lead the world in solitary confinement: “With some 80,000 prisoners in solitary, the United States leads the world in isolating its citizens as well as incarcerating them.”[3] Solitary confinement is defined by many (among them the American Friends Service Committee, and Physicians for Human Rights) as torture.[4]

In only two states (Maine and Vermont), can prisoners vote in elections. In some states, your right to vote is either permanently lost upon a felony conviction; in other states, it can be restored after a complicated and costly process. Given the disproportionate number of African-American men in US prisons, we might consider they ways incarceration functions as a tool of systematic, racialized disenfranchisement.[5]

Women represent about 7% of the incarcerated population in America; in part because of current patterns of drug sentencing, the population of incarcerated women is growing. Almost 70% of incarcerated women are members of ethnic or racial minorities. Most of them have experienced sexual or physical violence, and incarcerated women are more likely to have experienced sexual or physical violence than non-incarcerated women.[6]

In many states, pregnant incarcerated women are shackled during labor and delivery. This violates the U. N.’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.[7]

And here is a statistic from my backyard – in North Carolina, if you are seriously mentally ill, your chances of winding up in prison are significantly higher than your chances of finding care in a state psychiatric hospital bed. In other words, we have recriminalized mental illness, at least among the poor.[8]

I could go on, but The Hardest Question gives me a word limit.

Basic Discipleship

In Matthew 25, there are urgent instructions— i.e. this-is-a-basic-norm-for-discipleship —about visiting prisoners. Many of our churches have launched prison ministries because of those instructions, and many of those ministries are doing good, life-giving work.

And then there is Hebrews 13, which begins to move past visiting more fully into solidarity. (Not that I mean to imply an opposition between the two: visiting a prison can be what prompts solidarity, and solidarity surely might prompt a visit.)

And here in Luke the text goes further. It goes beyond “set up a prison ministry and visit the poor folks behind bars.” Here the text is saying: proclaim freedom for the prisoners.

Are we?

The Hardest Question

Reading in this trailer, this is what the hardest question seems to be:

How dare non-incarcerated citizens of this carceral state read about Jesus’ being sent to proclaim freedom to the prisoners? How can we read that, and not be moved to do something about the egregious patterns of imprisonment practiced throughout the United States?

+       +       +

[1] Lisa Bloom, “When Will the US Stop Mass Incarceration?”  

[2] Adam Liptak, “U. S. Prison Population Dwarfs That of Other Nations,”

[3] “Ending Solitary Confinement,”

[4]; ;

[5] On this point, see especially Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010), 158-161.

[6] Traci Schlesinger and Jodie Michelle Lawston, “Experiences of Interpersonal Violence and Criminal Legal Control: A Mixed Method Analysis,” SAGE Open 2011 (originally published online 16 August 2011: )

[7] Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman, eds, Inside This Place, Not Of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons (San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2011), 242-243.

[8] Prisons and Jails are North Carolina’s New Mental Hospitals (a report of the Wake County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness), )

Reverend Dr. Lauren Winner writes and lectures widely on Christian practice, the history of Christianity in America, and Jewish-Christian relations. Her books include Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath, Real Sex, a study of household religious practice in 18th-century Virginia, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith, published by Yale University Press in the fall of 2010, and, most recently, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. Lauren is also a contributor to sparkhouse’s animate series for adult faith formation. In the midst of lecturing and writing, Lauren serves as a priest associate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (Durham) and a member of the board of the Episcopal Preaching Foundation.


  1. Dwight Robarts says:

    True words- these you have written. You have a done a wonderful job identifying the problem. You have made clear that we ought to do something, but what? It’s easy to state these problems, but what are the solutions that an ordinary person or an ordinary minister should pursue? Write our congressman or state legislator and ask them to do what? What would matter? What would really make a difference?

  2. Lauren says:

    Great question, Dwight. Solidarity makes a difference, I think — actual solidarity and relationship with people in prisons…not so much “ministry to” as learning from incarcerated men and women — partially (and perhaps this topic for another day) because many biblical texts look pretty different when read from prison. (And the book Jonathan Weldon mentions is a great resource for that.) I also think activism toward reforming the prison system is — well, to be blunt, I think it is doable, and I think it is a Christian obligation in our current time and place. In NC, where I live, there is a nascent group forming to try to end solitary confinement in NC, a movement that includes attorneys, pastors, anti-torture activists, policy wonks–that is just one example of a kind of action Christians might get involved with. Finally, one of the many problems with the prison system is how it sticks to you after you get out — the problems having a record create for your housing, job prospects, voting. Churches can ask whether we really welcome all — do we welcome formerly incarcerated people? Do we work for better reentry situations? Just a few thoughts — I would welcome more from others!

  3. Thanks for these thoughts, Lauren. I’m calling attention to prisoners in my sermon this week, drawing on Bob Ekblad’s book “Reading the Bible with the Damned” and with some help from your research here.


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