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.
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.”
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.” Solitary confinement is defined by many (among them the American Friends Service Committee, and Physicians for Human Rights) as torture.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I could go on, but The Hardest Question gives me a word limit.
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.
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?
+ + +
 Lisa Bloom, “When Will the US Stop Mass Incarceration?” http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/03/opinion/bloom-prison-spending/index.html
 Adam Liptak, “U. S. Prison Population Dwarfs That of Other Nations,” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html?pagewanted=all
 “Ending Solitary Confinement,” http://www.thenation.com/blog/168860/ending-solitary-confinement#
 https://afsc.org/resource/solitary-confinement-facts; http://www.pen.org/blog/steve-champion-pen-prison-writing-award-winner-hunger-strikes-san-quentin ; http://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights-criminal-law-reform/aclu-united-nations-solitary-confinement-violates-human
 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.
 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: http://intl-sgo.sagepub.com/content/1/2/2158244011419523.full.pdf+html )
 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.
 Prisons and Jails are North Carolina’s New Mental Hospitals (a report of the Wake County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness), http://www.nami-wake.org/files/Prison_Mental_Illness_NAMIWake_Oct10.pdf )
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.