PANEL 1 (Friday, 9:00am-10:30am): Activating Religious Potentialities

Joshua Dubler, University of Rochester, “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Radical Prisoners’ Religion”

Drawing on three case proceedings, this paper revisits the period roughly spanning 1960 to 1980, when iterations of religious radicalism became available to American prisoners. During this period, under the banner of free religious exercise, prisoners erected for themselves platforms from which, as collectives, they challenged directly the fundamental legitimacy of the American state. The paper explores the social, legal and administrative logics that made politically-minded religious radicalism, during these years, practically available, and tracks shifts in the same that, by Reagan, rendered these contentious forms more or less impossible. While the paper concedes that the religious radicalism of the 1960s and 70s will not return, it concludes by wondering aloud about what the reemergence of the hunger strike might say about a possible rebirth of religious radicalism in American prisons.

Sarah Haley, UCLA, “Abolition Dreams: Gender and Southern Carceral Resistance, 1890-1936”

This presentation will explore African American women’s perceptions of the southern convict labor regime between the 1890s and 1930s.  “Abolition Dreams” will explore the analyses, political strategies, imaginaries, and cultural productions that women created to challenge convict labor and to highlight women’s experiences of violence within it.  Clubwomen, blues women, and Works Progress Administration interviewees circulated ideas about the horrors of southern punishment challenging it at every turn; in so doing, they crafted a radical, gendered critique of state violence.  This paper will consider the generative role of religion as part of the production of these transformative political imaginaries and mobilizations.

Mecke Nagel, SUNY Cortland, “The Ethic of Ubuntu and the End of Penality”

Not until Archbishop Tutu invoked prophetically Ubuntu during the Truth and Reconciliation proceedings in post apartheid South Africa, did this indigenous philosophy gain much attention across the globe. However, few scholars and practitioners have begun to connect it to the punishment industry. Ubuntu signifies shared humanity, and carries weight when practicing hospitality, i.e. inviting strangers to one’s home. In the philosophy of Ubuntu, both spiritual and secular principles come to the fore, best perhaps exemplified through Tutu’s Christian inflection in extoling the virtue of forgiveness, and President Mandela’s secular application of freeing incarcerated mothers, when he was lobbied to do so. Here I look at examples of both principles in light of resistance against the prison industrial complex with a focus on the Africana (Africans in diaspora) experience.

PANEL 2 (11:00am-12:30pm): Secularized Religious Ethics and Prisoner Solidarity

Paula Ioanide, Ithaca College, “Atoning for White Racism: Developing a Spiritual Framework for Prison Abolition”

More Black men are incarcerated or under the surveillance of the criminal justice system today than were enslaved in 1850. The profits obtained through prison and jail construction, operation, exploited labor, immigrant detention, and militarized policing and borders are comparable to the nation-wide economic investments in slavery. In short, the current prison-military-industrial complex is a reconstructed racial regime whose ancestral structure is rooted in the original sins of white supremacy. Prison abolitionists today have drawn parallels to slavery abolition movements in order to highlight the systemic nature of racialized oppression, now narrated through the color-blind and racially coded ideology of “criminality” rather than the eugenicist “biological inferiority” of former eras. Yet the moral and spiritual frameworks that situate prison abolition movements tend to remain unarticulated or peripheral. Secular skepticism about the role of religious and spiritual traditions (particularly the role of Christianity) often forecloses opportunities to develop spiritual and ethical frameworks in order to galvanize and expand prison abolition movements.  This paper develops a spiritual framework for prison abolition movements, with a particular focus on radical Christian activist traditions. If the original collective sins of the U.S. are slavery and indigenous genocide, I argue that spiritual atonement and redemption (particularly for whites but also for the nation) cannot be dissociated from the moral and political responsibility to redress the contemporary consequences of slavery, a large portion of which manifest in the illegitimate and unearned racialized suffering reproduced by the prison-military-industrial complex.

Joy James, Williams College, “Memory, Shame and Rage in Prison Abolitionism”

This reflection/conversation examines what we remember and forget, feel and resist, concerning U.S. mass incarceration as a structured form of racial-economic exploitation and sexual predation. Historical and collective cultural memories influence who or what we fear as a democratic society. Social attitudes concerning state and civil society’s violence against racially fashioned bodies, specifically black subjects, either condemn or justify punitive measures that disproportionately target black bodies. Memory, shame and rage configure the lens through which we see social justice and religious redemption. A reaction to shame (about historical enslavement, segregation and rape as embedded phenomena in western democracy) produces two distinct types of rage: one in opposition to and the other in support of punitive culture and racist codes of conduct and contempt.  If rage possesses a redemptive possibility, shame—how we define, touch and are released from/through it—is a cornerstone for comprehending and addressing the inhumanities of mass incarceration.

Dan Berger, University of Washington—Bothell, “A Belief in Living: Prison Radicalism as Secular, Ecumenical, and Something Altogether Different, 1960-2013”

From the Nation of Islam in the immediate postwar years to Christian organizations since the 1980s, religious organizations have often recruited among prisoners. And prisoners have utilized a wide range of religious practices, traditional and heterodox alike. Yet prison radicalism has never been a faith-based movement. Through a brief survey of prisoner organizing from the 1960s to the present, I argue that the largely secular freedom dreams of prisoners are often articulated through a spiritual dimension best encapsulated by former Black Panther political prisoner Assata Shakur’s poem that insists upon a belief in living. Such a belief has fashioned a politics from antiracist nationalism, socialism, and spirituality that emphasis personal transformation in the context of political struggle. In so doing, prison radicalism points to new forms of political mobilization that are secular, ecumenical, and perhaps altogether different from traditional social movements.

PANEL 3 (3pm-4:30pm): Methods, Poetics, & Utopias of Abolition

Lorna Rhodes, University of Washington, “Arguing Ethnography ‘Inside’ ”

The US prison complex is enormous, expensive, and extraordinarily harmful.  We know this.  What, then, can we learn from ethnographic research inside prisons that justifies the risks involved, particularly the risk that even critical research may contribute to the support of the system?  This talk first explores a devil’s advocate position against social research in prisons, including the potential harm associated with criminological approaches.   I then set out several arguments in favor of a specifically ethnographic approach centered on the persistence and effects of the social as it is institutionally shaped.  Finally, I suggest some ways in which we can perhaps guide our research toward a critical agenda offering the least harm and the greatest possibility for benefit.

Vincenzo Ruggiero, Middlesex University, “Abolitionism, Social Christianity and Mercy”

Abolitionism does not possess one single theoretical or political source of inspiration, but a composite background from which, wittingly or otherwise, it draws its arguments and proposals for action. This paper traces and discusses the Christian strand within abolitionism thinking, particularly in the biography and work of Louk Hulsman, whose ideas are compared to those of radical theology or the theology of liberation.  The paper also connects abolitionist arguments with libertarian ideas and the powerful images we inherit from some giants of Western literature. With Bakunin’s anarchism, it is argued, abolitionism shares the belief that the realization of freedom requires that political action be conducted religiously. In some pages of Tolstoy and Hugo an echo is felt of abolitionist concepts of redemption of punishment, self-government, mercy and pietas.  Ultimately, abolitionism is presented here as form of ‘concrete’ utopia.

Catherine Koehler, Cornell University, “‘There but for the Grace of God, Go My Sons’: The Language of Kinship, Abolitionist Poetics, and the Decarceral State”

This paper considers the everyday practices of detention in a men’s maximum security prison in Central New York, the work of ‘civilian’ prison staff in particular, and the unlikely ways in which the language of kinship surfaces in such work. Kinship tropes, I suggest, disrupt typical social relations within the prison and unveil a potentially radical language with which women, especially, might confront the carceral state. I relate this to a nineteenth-century abolitionist poetics that also drew heavily on the language of kinship in its appeals to women, and consider the racial politics of both. Finally, I explore how the language of kinship might inform contemporary religious organizing around decarceration.

PANEL 4  (5:00pm-6:30pm): Religious Workers on Decarceration and Prisoner Solidarity Movements

Sarah Small, Decarcerate PA

Laura Whitehorn & Mujahid Farid, Release Aging People in Prison

Representative TBA, Prisoners Are People Too

Clare Grady, Ithaca Catholic Workers

PANEL 5 (Saturday, 9:00am-10:30am): Theologies & Counter-theologies of Mass Incarceration

Vincent Lloyd, Syracuse University, “Political Theology, Neoliberalism, Mass Incarceration”

God punishes, and so does the society whose members imagine themselves as having been created in His image. More precisely, it isn’t society that punishes but the king, or the judge, or the bureaucrat. How we imagine God punishing affects how we imagine human institutions punishing. The analogy between God and king is clear, but might concepts of God still influence our ideas of punishment when it is democracy, or bureaucracy, or transnational organizations that displace kings and princes? While some claim that religious ideas no longer affect political institutions, recent scholarship has suggested that concealed theological commitments continue to exert decisive influence on the shape of our political and social worlds. Mass incarceration has rightly been identified as a cornerstone of our present era of neoliberalism, an era characterized by the paradox that freedom (of markets, and ideas, and desires) requires control (of borders, and rogue nations, and oppressed populations). This paper explores what it might mean to see mass incarceration as a symptom of the repression of ideas about God, particularly in the last four decades, resulting in social antinomies of freedom and constraint that disproportionately affect society’s weakest members. This paper examines how secular critics of neoliberalism overlook its important religious dimension, and how theological critics of neoliberalism overlook its material effects, such as mass incarceration. It shows how the rapid rise in the U.S. incarceration rate corresponded with a rapid reconfiguration of the role of religious ideas in U.S. public culture, a reconfiguration that complemented the neoliberal governance of which mass incarceration is a central part.

Mark Lewis Taylor, Princeton Theological Seminary, “Deconstructing Crucifixion & U.S. Mass Incarceration”

I undertake “deconstruction” of the symbol of crucifixion as it functions in religious practices of Christian-dominant U.S. society. Deconstructing this symbol is, in J-L Nancy’s words, “to loosen the assembled structure [here, the ideology mobilized around the cross image] in order to give some play to the possibility from which it emerged but which, qua assembled structure, it hides.” I argue that the cross is an assembled structure that plays a key role in religious rationalization of the raced, gendered and class-based U.S. system of mass incarceration. “To loosen” that structure through critique also discloses liberating possibilities of the cross symbol, particularly when creatively reconstructed in social movements, for haunting, subverting, and working toward abolition of mass incarceration. I give examples of critical retrievals of the cross in resistance discourse of the incarcerated themselves (particularly, reflections on the cross by U.S. revolutionary abolitionist and political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal).

James Samuel Logan, Earlham College, “Toward a Christian Vision and Politics of Good Punishment in Civil Society”

Both crime and retributivist mass punishment in the United States are expressive of an inevitable, intractable and unfortunate dimension of associational human life: namely, that no other creatures on earth engage in intra-species violence and other forms of harm as routinely, intensely, and wantonly as do human beings. Logan’s remarks will consider the difference Christian theology might make in confronting the scourge of U.S. mass incarceration within a wider prison industrial complex. He imagines a Christian vision of “good punishment,” which embodies a very difficult politics of healing the memories of crime by way of the acknowledgement of “sin” within a communal setting of forgiveness and reconciliation. It will be suggested that there may well be aspects of this difficult communal politics of Christian healing memories that are translatable within a liberal society struggling with matters of crime and mass punishment, a society which holds no particular commitments to a peaceable Christian politics.

PANEL 6 (11:00am – 12:30pm): States of Captivity & Religious Justice in Latin America

Chris Garces, Cornell University, “Occupying Prisons, Disappearing Publics, and the Incarnating Movement of the Squares”

While somewhat easy to forget, the “Movement of the Squares” that reverberated across North Africa, the Near East, and the North Atlantic World since 2011 may also be viewed in cross-hemispheric context as an extension of the 1970s and 80s Latin American protest occupations against the militarized retrenchment of carceral state capitalism.  In this long view on recent global events, the hyper-incarceration, and literal disappearance of individuals and entire publics gives way to spectacular displays of citizens’ grievances with the state.  The counter-neoliberal occupying of public space forges novel links, therefore, with the plight of the disappeared, and unconsciously takes up a variety of ‘religious’ connotations in practice—just as the most critically astute commentators on the Movement of the Squares have observed that occupiers, with their own bodies, counteract the politics of absence with a metaphysics of presence.

Clara Han, Johns Hopkins University, “Between the Young and the Old:  Affliction and Violent Death”

In this paper, I focus on the expressions of dying and affliction of the old in a low-income neighborhood of Santiago, Chile that has been under police occupation since 2001. This occupation has produced extremely high incarceration rates, while also sharpening neighbors’ perceptions that the numbers of violent death of youth from both police and local disputes have increased under occupation. Rather than take incarceration itself as the focus of this paper, I explore how the event of incarceration clusters with violent death, financial crises, episodes of drug addiction, and other adverse situations in older people’s lives, and how this clustering is given expression amongst the old. Within this dying space of the old, I then ask how limits to earthly justice might be met with the calls for and faith in divine justice and fate.

Kevin Lewis O’Neill, University of Toronto, “On Liberation: Crack, Christianity, and Captivity in Postwar Guatemala City”

Pentecostal rehabilitation centers are on the rise in Guatemala City.  Linked to a postwar spike in street crime and the spread of crack cocaine, these compulsory centers usher in a new genre of captivity while also providing a window onto the practice of liberation today.

One thought on “Abstracts

  1. Pingback: Religion, Abolition, Mass Incarceration: A Conference at Cornell University « Religion and Incarceration

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