I am a newcomer to the cause of prison abolition. When I first encountered the work of prison abolitionists like Mariame Kaba, I scoffed. The idea seemed nice, but utterly impossible, almost laughably idealistic.
But the cause of prison abolition stayed with me. I kept following Kaba’s Twitter account. Over time, her arguments appeared more reasonable; prison abolition seemed much more possible, but still unwise. I managed to maintain my moral equilibrium.
But this was only temporary.
Just as Kaba’s work forced me to change how I understand the prison, my own research into the history of Africanized slavery and its habituating influence on the Catholic church forced me to change how I understand myself.
When reading about the great injustices of the past, it’s so easy to presume oneself on the side of the good guys and gals. We may not even realize we are doing this until we see ourselves where we least expect: in the faces of history’s villains. Or at least this is what happened to me.
I began to notice an increasingly uncomfortable resemblance between not just slavery and the prison, but enslavers’ apologies for slavery and my defenses of the prison: they are guilty, they are better off, what about innocent victims of violence, they broke the law, there would be chaos and bloodshed, etc etc.
What its advocates had said about slavery in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, I found myself saying about the prison today. I felt about the prison much like they had felt about slavery.
It was this encounter-the one between the person I thought I would have been and the person I actually was-that made my conversion to the cause of prison abolition nearly inevitable.
I remain in this space today.
This essay, published in The Church Life Journal, along with a forthcoming article in The Journal of Catholic Social Thought, are my attempt both to present my case to others and continue making sense of it for myself. Please let me know what you think.
The Catholic case for prison abolition seems closed. After all, Catholic magisterial teaching clearly and explicitly classifies incarceration as a necessary, even if unfortunate, component of the common good. However, once we appreciate the deep similarities between prison and slavery, a relation the Church once circumstantially endorsed but now categorically condemns, it seems much more likely that Catholic teaching on the prison is in flux. In fact, this comparison suggests not only that Church teaching is changing, but that it should change.