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Sarah Jobe: Mass incarceration is one of the biggest problems of our time

People in prison don’t need saving; what they need is practical help from the church to show that faith is something besides a ticket to heaven, says the Baptist minister and prison chaplain.

Creative Commons / Decade Null

August 23, 2011

The Rev. Sarah Jobe kept hearing the same thing over and over from students at Vanderbilt Divinity School that she’d meet at conferences or during their field education: They said the most transformational classes they’d taken were taught in a maximum-security men’s prison.

Those seminary-style classes, they told her, were part of a program in which divinity students and men in prison studied together. Jobe thought, “Gosh, that sounds great.” So she set out to create a similar program near Durham, N.C., where she lives.

After she spent a year trying to find a prison to partner with in North Carolina, the first classes that paired Duke Divinity School students and people who are incarcerated were offered at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women in 2009. The classes are now offered at the Durham Correctional Center for Men, too, and Jobe oversees the program as director of Project TURN.

As a chaplain at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women and a member of the Rutba House, an intentional Christian community, she has also helped lead efforts to open a re-entry house this fall in which women just leaving prison will live with Duke Divinity School students.

Jobe, an ordained Baptist minister and graduate of Duke Divinity, spoke with Faith & Leadership about building relationships with incarcerated people, the good and bad of churches’ prison ministries, and what she has learned from people who are incarcerated. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why did you start a program that offers graduate-level classes and brings together divinity students and people who are incarcerated?

We started with a spiritual autobiography course, because that was a subject matter that innately involved personal storytelling, and we wanted people to learn from each other and to become friends and to hear one another’s wisdom.

But we don’t want them to just hear from one another; we want the men and women who are incarcerated to experience themselves as having something to teach. It’s important to us that they experience their own giftedness and their own worth and that they experience someone listening to them as if what they have to say is meaningful.

It’s also an important practice for divinity school students to learn to listen to people who sound different from their professors and from their friends.

I think we have a certain idea of who we are to listen to and what wisdom looks like personified; we are taught what wisdom looks like. Typically, that’s an older man, maybe an older woman, who uses correct grammar, has a very learned speech, makes references to literary works and has some interesting life experience they’ve made sense out of.

We’d like people to be retrained and learn that wisdom comes in all sorts of amazing formats.

When we’re talking about God, this becomes particularly poignant, because you’re talking about the ground of all being, the source of life, the place where we get our values. When you put your ultimate life’s meaning in one place, it becomes utterly homogenous, and entire swaths of the population are cut out of who God is and what matters to God.

You’re chopping off the arms of the body of Christ and acting as if everything’s great, but you’ve got this mangled, bloody, broken body of the church. I think of Paul’s language, “Can the eye say to the foot, ‘I don’t need you’? Can the hand say to the head, ‘I don’t need you’?”

The folks who are incarcerated -- you have to come to them to hear their wisdom. Our hope is that the people who come to them and learn from them will go out and will be different and have theological discourses that bring the voices of their incarcerated brothers and sisters to whatever tables they’re invited to.

Q: What do you think of the typical prison ministry?

People come into prisons with the absolute best of intentions. They have incredibly good hearts and good spirits. But a lot of the time they’re coming in with an idea that the people in prisons need to be saved.

That’s a nice impulse, but the truth is that most of the people in prisons are already saved. One of the realities of prison life is that you have way more time and access to Bible studies and church services or inner faith programs than those of us on the outside.

I don’t know any human being who’s not incarcerated who goes to three Bible studies a week. I know 60 incarcerated women right now who go to three or more Bible studies and religious services a week. They already know Jesus.

What they need is real practical help from the church to show them that their faith is something besides a ticket to heaven. A lot of them had the ticket to heaven when they committed their offense, and the ticket to heaven was not enough to get them out of whatever desperate circumstances caused them to commit a crime. The ticket to heaven was not enough to get them off drugs or out of an abusive relationship or to get a job that could feed their four children. The ticket to heaven wasn’t enough, and we don’t need to hear about that again.

Q: What is needed?

What we need are people who are serious about linking their faith up to practice and linking their faith up to the practices of other people who are willing to let their faith help someone else get a home and to show how that’s not just a social thing but that is at the very heart of our faith.

We need workshops on how faith can help with anger issues. We need, as faith communities, to take seriously that we have a call to surround women who are being abused and to support parents who can’t provide for their children. As a faith community, we need for people to be able to say, “This is the way my church can support you when you get out,” and, “This is the way my church is supporting other women who are having trouble finding jobs.”

What we need are ways that our faith links up practically to the very real constraints of the lives of those who end up incarcerated in our society, and I don’t see that as much as I would wish to see it in prisons and as much as we desperately need to see it.

Q: What have you learned from working with people who are incarcerated?

One of the things I have struggled with as a woman -- and that I think a lot of women in our culture struggle with -- is to know my own worth and to believe in my own beauty. That’s a daily struggle for me.

There are all sorts of reasons for that, and most of them are socially constructed. Even though I can acknowledge that they’re socially constructed, it doesn’t make it any easier to live with yourself when you’re constantly scrutinizing yourself.

But I have come to, if not to trust deeply, at least believe conditionally in my own beauty and worth -- both because the women I work with tell me about it and because I see their beauty and I see them struggling and I want to tell them about it.

I see that they’re having the exact same struggles as I am, but because they’re not me, I can see how beautiful they are and how incredibly gifted and articulate and insightful they are, and I can see them insulting themselves and saying, “Who am I to say, but …,” and then they spout out the most incredible, insightful thing I’ve heard all day.

I think to myself both, “Wow, that was great,” and, “Oh my gosh, I do that all the time.” I am constantly undermining myself and my own authority, thinking these negative thoughts about myself.

That has become a deep fact and a deep truth, and I am so glad to know that truth about the world. I am so, so glad to be freed from a notion that I, and people like me, are somehow inherently inferior.

It gets pretty soul-killing to live in that lie that is so pervasive in our society -- that some people are deserving and some are not, that some are gifted and some are not. I don’t even think I had realized how twisted my spirit had become from living in that lie, and now I think I’m finally settling into a new truth.

Q: What do you think Christian institutional leaders should know about prisons or incarcerated people?

We are practicing mass incarceration in our country at such an alarming rate -- in the United States, that is one of the biggest social problems of our time. I think it is a social reality that divides our neighborhoods and divides our cities. It puts people into a permanent underclass, and it becomes a label and a marker that is almost inescapable.

My word to church leaders would be that prison ministry is not just one more ministry to choose if you feel called to, but that who gets incarcerated, how incarceration happens, and the alarming rate at which incarceration is escalating is a crucial issue for every leader of a church in the United States.

Your congregation, whoever you are, is affected by this. Your nonprofit is affected by this. And if you haven’t yet been given eyes to see how, you need to seek out people who have. You need to seek out people in your community who can explain how your congregation is being affected by incarceration.

I think we are facing an epidemic, and it’s not a godly epidemic. It’s an ungodly epidemic where some people are treated like they’re not people.

Q: Describe programs that you’ve seen work.

I’ve encountered some re-entry programs that are trying to do a comprehensive job of giving people the psychological space they need to heal. Where I see some of the most creativity and hope is in some re-entry programs. The Healing Place in Raleigh, N.C., is one example that immediately pops to mind.

These programs are trying to deal with the entirety of people, including their spiritual, emotional, and their physical needs, as well as their mental health, and to help provide job opportunities. They recognize that when the Constitution guarantees the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, pursuing happiness actually takes skills.

Some people are denied access to those skills. You cannot pursue happiness if you are struggling with manic depression and you don’t have any resources for therapy or medications.

I also believe these are God-given rights and that God desires for us life, freedom and happiness, in a very deep, fulfilled shalom sense.

Whether you want to think of these as state-ordained rights or God-ordained rights, we’re not actually offering them to huge swaths of people. It would be great to see more programs front-loading these services prior to incarceration, and it’d be great to see them in incarcerated settings.

I have seen a lot of signs of life and hope in re-entry programs that are trying to offer shalom -- a wholeness for a peaceful life that includes aspects of family reunification that is life-giving.

There are signs of life, but unfortunately, I see most of those signs of life outside of the prisons and more in the re-entry work.

Q: What would be your vision of what a godly prison system looks like?

It would be a ton smaller -- that’s for sure. Masses of our prisons would be shut down. Nonviolent offenders would not serve time, and we have models all over the world that we could look to for that. The vast sums of money that could be saved by not incarcerating those types of folks could be put toward psychological services, education, rehabilitation programs, family help services and getting people out of abusive situations.

A number of decades ago, there was still this idea that prisons could be a place for reform. They were even called reformatories. Most states have taken that language out of their laws.

I think we need to reclaim that and we need to restructure. Whether we continue to have it be in prisons or we develop new institutions, we need to give people a space away from whatever brought them to criminal activity and to destructive behaviors.

Some people do benefit from a number of months or even a year away -- away from the crazy, death-dealing life -- to develop skills and habits and new ways of relating before they start to attempt to take back on the pieces of that life that they’re responsible for. I think we could see more of those.

There are people working on this across the nation; they’re working on a more restorative justice instead of retributive justice.