Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Theological Responses to the U.S. Penal System”

An hour-long teleconference with

Rima Vesely-Flad

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

1 to 2 p.m. ET

Mary E. Hunt: Rima Vesely-Flad, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Religion and Social Justice and the Director of Peace and Justice Studies at Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Racial Purity and Dangerous Bodies: Moral Pollution, Black Lives, and the Struggle for Justice (Fortress Press, 2017). She is currently at work on Black Buddhists and the Black Prophetic Tradition: The Practice of Stillness in Racial Justice Activism.

She holds a doctorate in social ethics from Union Theological Seminary, a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and a B.A. from the University of Iowa. She teaches Buddhist social ethics, environmental justice, critical race theory, and social movements. All of this shows in her writing—Iowa clear; sharp analysis a la Columbia; and moral/ethical rigor in the Union tradition.

In 2004, Rima founded the Interfaith Coalition of Advocates for Reentry and Employment (ICARE), a New York State grassroots organization focused on changing legislative barriers encountered by people with criminal convictions. ICARE has been credited with helping to pass seven bills in the New York State Legislature.

Her honors include a 2007 Union Square Award for grassroots activists, a dissertation fellowship from the Forum for Theological Exploration, and the 2017 Teaching Excellence Award from Warren Wilson College, a wonderful place in North Carolina where students take a lot of responsibility, according to my godson who loved it!

Welcome, Rima.

Rima Vesely-Flad: Thank you so much, Mary. It’s a pleasure to be with you today. I’m actually teaching a class on the penal system and I told my students how excited I was to talk with you about the theological aspects. The class tends to be more of a social theory class, so I welcome the opportunity to talk to people who are more interested in theology and religious practice specifically.

First, I’d like to give an overview of the penal system, how some scholars approach it, and where my scholarship enters into that. Mary, you mentioned that much of this comes out of grassroots work, activism with communities of faith, with legal advocates, and with family members, all of which overlap at different times. When I wrote this book I found myself accountable to these specific audiences and thinking about how these audiences of legal advocates, activists, family members, and communities of faith were thinking about the penal system in particular.

A word on mass incarceration. It’s important to understand that the United States has about 300 million people, about 5% of the world’s population. But we have 25% of the world’s prison population. That gives you a sense of how disproportionate our numbers are and how strong our disposition is to a punitive approach to certain populations.

Two chapters of my book talk about the history of constructing blacks in certain ways—as deviant, criminal, and having inherent character flaws. I don’t want to start with the civil rights period, which is where many texts start, because the construction of blackness as a polluted entity and has a centuries-long history.

During racial slavery in the U.S., we had a penal system that was built on the premise of reforming people. The vast majority of people who were in this penal system were white men who were incarcerated with this pretense of moral reform. After the era of slavery in 1865, we saw a very dramatic shift toward the practice of punishing. New laws passed, new criminal codes that were known as black codes. They made things such as mobility without paperwork a crime specific to black people. These were sometimes written as race neutral codes, but because they were so specifically applied they were known as black codes.

This shows two dispositions towards punishment historically. One of which is this idea that we will reform people to become more moral. And then we have this very intentional, highly punitive, corporal form of punishment, which is really about controlling bodies and labor. This is almost exclusively applied to people of African descent. We have these constructions of blackness that talk about reformation and rehabilitation and then we have a system that is really built on labor exploitation. This happens for about 100 years after the Civil War and then we have the Civil Rights Movement. We have this incredible movement that was grassroots and highly inspirational. It was grounded in a kind of Christian ethics that swayed the public imagination.

Important laws were passed—in 1964, the Civil Rights Act and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act. This meant free mobility for black people and political power. It reworked some of these earlier constructions of black people as polluted and also provided a kind of agency that had been sequestered for a hundred years during Jim Crow.

Richard Nixon is the first person who articulated the war on drugs in 1971. Scholars will often talk about how he used very coded language to garner what many will call the white working class vote. He turned many previously democratic voters to the Republican Party. Nixon was very successful, he won the presidency and he began to talk about ways of using coded language about crime to swing the public imagination and build up a kind of fear. The main language he honed in on was a fear of drugs.

In 1971 he announced a war on drugs, which is unprecedented. This federal attention to crime was unprecedented because crime is local, for the most part. And crime had never really been talked about at the federal level until the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had been passed in the mid ’60s and now white voters in particular wanted the federal government to respond. To be clear, the federal government had responded to Civil Rights demonstrators, sometimes by protecting them. So there was this new emphasis and expectation that the federal government would respond to social upheaval in a way that, in the past, all these actions had been responded to locally but the federal government was now highlighted with these new expectations and so crime becomes something the federal government takes on. And it takes it on by distributing grants to local precincts, by the supporting the building of new tech. This is also the period we start to get SWAT police forces, these highly trained police forces that are very militaristic. But importantly Nixon emphasized the war on drugs and now drugs, like violent crimes and property crimes, become something people can be highly penalized and incarcerated for, and this is new.

For example, in 1970, just the year before Nixon announced this war on drugs, we had about 200,000 people in state or federal prison. In 2015, just three years ago, we have almost 1.5 million people in state and federal prison. This does not include county jails, immigration detention centers, or juvenile detention centers. Of course we’ve had to build many more prisons, and that prison building largely took place in the 1980s when Reagan escalated the war on drugs.

Also, it’s important to note in the 1970s we were seeing huge demographic shifts in prison. In 1950, 70% of the prison population consisted of white men. By 1973, the prison population almost completely reversed. It is only 30% white men and 70% black and Latino. So there has been a demographic shift. So when Nixon announces this war on drugs, and he makes drugs a category for which people will be penalized. There is a huge shift in the sheer numbers of people who are sent to prison for possession, for selling narcotics in particular.

We also start to see in the early 1970s huge philosophical shifts. There is starting to be this idea that rehabilitation didn’t work. Also in 1973 the Republican governor of New York State announced the Rockefeller drug laws, the first minimum sentencing drug laws. Now people can be sent to prison for very long periods of time for simply possessing or selling narcotics. And there is no judicial discretion, no context to be taken into account. With Rockefeller, the minimum sentence was 15 years to life. In the ’80s the federal government takes on drug laws and drug crimes and passes these massive and sweeping crime bills. In 1994, we had the largest crime bill passed under Democratic President Bill Clinton, and it escalated funding for prison building and for police forces, sending unprecedented numbers of people to prison. Sometimes for low-level offenses, sometimes simply because they are poor and do not have other options.

This is a new era in the United States and it’s invisible to the white mainstream population that very specific communities are targeted. These are primarily low-income communities, primarily black and Latino communities. Sometimes scholars will talk about this as a prison nation and yet it’s highly selective who gets targeted. And then after prison who actually has access to voting rights or job mobility? When we talk about mass incarceration we talk about all of this.

When scholars such as Michelle Alexander use the term mass incarceration they will say this is not simply a system that deals with crime. We don’t actually have higher rates of crime than we did in the 1950s or 1970s. What we do have are new laws that have been passed and that have been applied very selectively and disproportionately applied to people of African descent. And someone like Michelle Alexander in 2010 published a very important book, The New Jim Crow; I would say a groundbreaking book not because it was new but because it was written in a way that people could understand. She argues that what we have is a new Jim Crow. We had 100 years of Jim Crow where black people could not vote in certain parts of the country, where there wasn’t social mobility and economic mobility, where there was outright terrorism in certain communities. She says that’s what we have taking place today, now under the guise of the penal system. Now it’s legal. And we can see this in other ways.

For example, prior to the Civil Rights Act you could deny someone a job or place to live based on their race. After those laws were passed you can’t do that, but you can do that if they have a felony conviction. Now, we really have the same kinds of social barriers but under the guise of the law. You can’t say that someone can’t vote, you can’t administer literacy tests, or poll taxes. But you can say that someone can’t vote if they have a felony conviction. So we have these kinds of barriers and it has mattered tremendously. There are 14 states where 10% or more of the entire black population is permanently barred from voting because they have felony convictions. That statistic is in a book called Locked Out, which is very worth reading.

So when I talk about racial purity and dangerous bodies what I’m really interested in is what is represented by blackness. Historically there have been constructions of blackness in which black people have been seen as degraded and criminalized and I’m interested in how this functions in our social spaces today and why there’s such effort to continue to bar black bodies. So that’s part of where my work is entering in. I also want to say that there’s another dimension that’s important other than the political one, namely, the symbolic dimension.

We have whole communities that have now become highly invested in maintaining the penal system. By that I mean rural economies that want prisons to be built because there are no longer factories or farms. I can talk specifically about Upstate New York. They begged for prisons to be built because there was no other economy, because they were losing young people in rapid numbers because people couldn’t sustain their families. These are areas that are desperately seeking prisons to be built. There are private prison companies and corporations that have expanded and contracted with the states and federal government, and they too want to maintain high numbers of people in prison.

There are also prison workers, people who desperately want the prison system to remain how it is or even expand. So it is to say that we have all of these invested interests and when we talk about what it means to understand what is happening with the prison system we have to understand that there is a political dimension.

There’s also a symbolic dimension in which we are interested in maintaining a certain kind of social order, when we have black bodies that symbolize something. We’ve had all of these extraordinary books that talk about policies and economics but in my mind they don’t really adequately explain why black people in particular, and that’s where I think Religious Studies and Christian Ethics play a very important role in helping us to understand what’s happening. And you know from hearing my bio that’s where I’ve had my head for the past few years. Now I’m in the academy but I spent many years on the ground and I thought much about how symbols have become, have always been, important in maintaining social order and how symbols of blackness have become so important in both containing certain populations but also making these populations somewhat invisible.

So what I would argue is that black bodies symbolize danger, pollution, and disorder whereas white bodies symbolize concepts of safety, purity, and order. Even the title of my book is a play on a book by Mary Douglas called Purity and Danger. What I do is take her analysis and really think about black bodies, contrasted against this symbol of white bodies and think about why black people in particular. It’s not as though black people commit more crimes, certainly not drug crimes, and that has been proven study after study. And yet black people are still disproportionately prosecuted, policed, and penalized and that’s what I’m trying to get at.

So, what I argue is that these symbols of blackness and whiteness have great longevity and have been reified in the contemporary era. What we have is a penal system that really institutionalizes these boundaries between black and white or between purity and pollution. We have this in policing, in imprisonment, and we have this in the barriers to reentry, barriers to being able to live in certain places, work certain jobs, to vote. So the penal system works to entrench those boundaries.

The second part of my book, in the chapter that was passed out for this conversation, talks about what’s happened with Black Lives Matter and Ferguson and how symbols can be employed to push against these boundaries and constructs. I think Black Lives Matter has been extraordinary in offering up new ways to think about blackness. To be able to bypass mainstream conversations we might see, and now black people are talking to each other. They’re reshaping these narratives in really important ways. In the chapter you have we also have clergy joining in—clergy who have largely been peripheral are participating in the reconstruction of blackness. Clergy have been extremely important. So I think I’ll stop there, I’ve given you these broad strokes and this backdrop and now I can take questions. If you would like we could talk about how symbols can be used in ethics ways to push back against these constructs of pollution.


Q: What is the most important thing that someone like myself could do to help make this a better situation? I come from a small, very conservative state.

Rima Vesely-Flad: Well, especially given the area you’re in, it sounds to me like being able to interrupt racism in a social conversation can be a really important skill to develop. I think that we often freeze when it comes to loved ones and friends who may make comments that are not so much based in fact but based in perception. We’re afraid of alienating our loved ones. I’m thinking of how Black Lives Matter has been framed in some of the more conservative areas as a terrorist group, or as responsible for police deaths, especially on social media. I wonder if what is at the root of so much of that is a push back against black people asserting themselves? It seems to me that the ability to stand up and interrupt a kind of narrative that, for lack of a better term, is part of our dominant culture, is important.

Take the phrase “All Lives Matter.” It’s important to really be able to pick that apart with people you know best and with people we may go to church with, to be able to give the perspective of the people who are articulating that. You may be able to do things that someone like I would never be able to do because you have relationships where you live with people who may think differently than the kind of social environment I’m in. I live on a very liberal campus that is LGBTQ friendly. It’s very homogenous and people would never say to me “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” but you may be able to do very important work by being able to explain why an activist might articulate it as “Black Lives Matter.”

The other thing I would say is that it’s important to get to know people who have been incarcerated, whether that is through a bible study or a worship group or some sort of volunteer program because we can really only be accountable to those we have personal relationships with. Otherwise everything is filtered. So, I think activism comes from those relationships across social boundaries. Being able to put a human face to those issues. Start there, start with the relationships you have and the relationships you can form with people who might be of a very different social demographic and who might be behind bars.

Q: Thank you very much. I was amazed and wonderfully informed by your talk, which broke my heart quite a bit. I’m wondering what you see as different kinds of sacred or profoundly ethical sources of inspiration and empowerment that assist Black Lives Matter and their diverse allies in reconstructing blackness and seeing the truth better?

RVF: That’s such a wonderful question. Who are the sources of inspiration? I know there are a number of black feminist thinkers and writers who have been extremely important and one thing I would like to heighten is how important it has been for this movement to privilege queer identity. That is central in ways that we have never seen before in a racial justice movement. I think much of that comes from many of these frontline activists who are inspired by thinkers like Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde. They’re inspired by people who are thinking about blackness in an intersectional way and who write about gender and sexuality in addition to writing about racial identity. While many of these folks are not particularly interested in the Christian Church I think they feel great gratitude to clergy who have supported them. I can say in terms of Ferguson the Rev. Traci Blackmon has been really important for a number of on the ground activists. Rev. Starsky Wilson hosted the freedom riders who went right after Michael Brown was killed to offer expertise. Both of them have a number of extremely powerful sermons. So even though a number of these young people do not have interest in the institutional church they do express gratitude to clergy who have been able to put the weight of the Christian Bible and Christian symbols behind this kind of grassroots activism.

Q: Two questions, one is that I very much appreciated your careful explanation and analysis of the racialization and pollution boundaries and I think this construction of race and the construction of the US prison industrial complex go hand in hand. I did my own Clinical Pastoral Education (the practicum people do who want to be ministers, priests, or rabbis in a congregational setting) in a women’s prison in southern California in the late 1970s. It was certainly the most formative part of my theological education. I was wondering if you could say something on the particular ways in which black women are a part of this? You made the point earlier that most incarcerated people a century ago were men, not only that, but white men. But now as, the population becomes primarily people of color, what about women? Are there particular issues for women?

RVF: I talk a lot about black and brown men in part because the sheer number of people incarcerated are largely male identified persons. I’ll give you an example: in NY State at the height of incarceration there were 70 prisons and 4 of them were women’s prisons, but 66 of them were men’s prisons. Men have been disproportionately incarcerated. It’s interesting because I have been challenged by Black Lives Matter activists to create the hash tag #SayHerName to think about the different plight of women who become incarcerated.

I also work at a women’s prison very close to my campus, so I’m also attuned to the differences. One thing that we know both through social scientific research and anecdotal evidence is that women are often incarcerated for lower level crimes that usually have something to do with a male partner. That means that they’ve been charged as an accomplice or they’re been involved in some kind of activity related to drugs. They’re not the drivers per say, but they’re seen as accomplishes. Very often this is damaging not only to the women who are incarcerated but as primary caretakers of children they are often stereotyped as bad mothers. There are very different constructs when it comes to women because they are disproportionately the primary caretakers and disproportionately holding down the home. It’s said that when you incarcerate a man you incarcerate a man, but when you incarcerate a woman you incarcerate the whole family because it impacts children to such a very different degree. Children who will often go into foster care systems or some sort of state run system in which they are themselves likely to be incarcerated down the line. I see this in the women’s prison where I work and I don’t want to build upon prevailing stereotypes. I used to work at Sing Sing, which is a maximum-security male prison facility, and now I work at a minimum-security women’s prison. So often women feel as if they have not had certain kinds of opportunities and they have internalized perhaps a lack of self-esteem that I really didn’t see in the male prison. In the male prison I saw much more of a kind of assertion, anger. In the women’s prison I see a sense of ‘I’ve done something wrong, I’ve asked for repentance, I’ve asked for forgiveness, if I can get my life together I can do better things’ and they really take it upon themselves to point to a broader system that has disproportionally penalized them. There’s a different kind of consciousness building and the work with women needs to be approached differently, to focus on that sort of confidence building—a building of an analysis and assertion rather than simply talking about forgiveness and salvation.

Q: Yes, I’m sure you’re right about that. I hope there will be more thinking about this. That was my take when I worked in a women’s prison as well. My other question has to do with some other work. I think you join one of your Union sisters, Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, whose important book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God published by Orbis in 2015 is one in which I think there are many insights that dovetail with what you are saying. She focuses on how there are many ways in which laws are crafted to reject and diss black bodies. I’m wondering what you think about her theology around this. You refer to this in your book as “this rejected black body also represents hope for Gods presence and deliverance in a paradoxical world,” (p. xli) that’s one of the ways in which you talk about it in your book. I’m wondering if you could talk about this theological position or maybe you want to move on and talk about your future work on Buddhism? I was just wondering where you are on some of her theology and how the Buddhist aspect might figure in here.

RVF: Sure, I actually know Kelly Brown Douglas’s book very well, I wrote a review on it for the Journal of the American Academy (can we find a digital copy of this review?) so I picked through it at great length. I think you’re right in a certain way we’re working with the same roots of black liberation theology and womanist theology and being trained in the same place, we studied with the same people. It’s interesting because she will talk about slave narratives and songs. She was writing after Trayvon Martin was killed but before Black Lives Matter took off. I think that it’s interesting to think how black liberation theologies and womanist theologies were articulated because so much of it was from black people reclaiming their blackness and black people thinking about redemption that arises due to suffering explicitly from racism. It’s interesting then to think about how even someone like Starsky Wilson is trying, through a theological lens, to respond to a generation that is not so much interested in the hymns of the Civil Rights movement much less slave spirituals but rather hip-hop songs. So theologically I think we’re getting a very different orientation. You know Kelly Brown Douglas will talk about how God is the remix, how God will take a certain form of suffering and for God’s people to turn it on its head but through a very different kind of language that’s explicitly oriented to a generation that’s finding its inspiration through, or its at least finding its energy, through a kind of resistance that is articulated through hip-hop and rap songs and that is, in some ways very distinct from Christian spirituals and hymns.

I think theologically what’s happening through clerical interpretation in particular is this ability to articulate where the youth are at and to see this kind of youthful energy, a kind of resurrection if you will. That’s some of what I talk about in that last chapter that simply being on the streets and being embodied and taking charge of a narrative and asserting oneself and standing before tanks and teargas and rubber bullets, putting oneself out there night after night after night. For these clergy that is a kind of resurrection, a kind of reclaiming. It’s saying that someone like Michael Brown, who had just graduated from high school, who was on his way to a vocational school, but who was in many ways vilified by the mass media is the way we must view Jesus of Nazareth, as someone who was unimportant, as someone who was vilified by the social elite of his time even within his community, born under Roman occupation. We can see Jesus of Nazareth as born into these unimportant conditions and constructed as outside of the social boundaries. If we can claim him as God we can claim that with Michael Brown. I think these clergy then, also in their language, attempt to reach youth in reference to hip-hop are doing something very different theologically, something that’s new.

There’s also this idea that if you do this, if you get out in front of the tanks and you go before these armed police officers and you exhibit nonviolent resistance by linking arms and occupying those public spaces, reclaiming those public spaces, if you do that then you too are meeting Christ or even embodying Christ. This is the way the clergy are talking about the youth in this movement, they are not backing down. In so doing they have said this is not about Michael Brown doing something wrong, but how he was constructed as criminal because he was a young black man. In that way they are reconstructing blackness. And I do think that Kelly Brown Douglas looks about that but in very different ways. She has sort of an extended lament as she’s talking about her son and I think these youth are in a very different place in that they are very assertive and angry in their street protests.

I’m not that far into the Buddhism project, but I can talk about where I see this project going. I can say the youth are not too interested in the institutional church but the black Buddhist teachers, who have been so important in trying to create these spaces of refuge, are all formed in Christian ethics. They all come out of the church. I think that it’s a really important thing to illuminate and expand. This is also an attempt to reach the youth but it’s interesting to see the ways in which Christian ethics informs how black Buddhists articulate their own orientation towards this grass roots struggle.

MEH: That is a very provocative way to bring this conversation to a close. We need to let youth run with this and be the new creators and makers of new reality. I have great hope and I think that we need to make the resources of people like you and Kelly Brown Douglas at their disposition and continue to push along so that we can move toward the real serious problems you pointed to in your book. You are talking about something of enormous urgency, so I can’t thank you enough.

DLN: This is Diann. So, just to bring to your attention, in the Washington Post 2/7/18, front page, “As Whites Find Black Roots Identity Gets Tangled” now, I read this article and what’s in front is where’s racism in the midst of this and can this mean a different focus on how everyone pays attention to all the issues you talked about today. This is about the ancestry DNA that everyone is doing and it has a positive twist on it. Just to quote “It’s an opportunity for us to reboot the conversation about race.” Is it dangerous? What do you think?

RFV: Yes, It’s funny I saw this headline but I haven’t read the story. Is it dangerous or helpful for black people to be thinking so seriously about the disparate parts of their roots, am I hearing that right?

DLN: Yes, I mean, people who thought they were white getting it touch with their black roots, their African roots, their African American roots.

RVF: If it helps them to have a different relationship with blackness, I think it’s hugely important. What I hope that doesn’t happen is a kind of rejection of blackness. What can happen is that if you can pass for white, what that implies is that you’re rejecting blackness. So if it’s a kind of reclaiming of blackness that can be extremely positive. I think most people in the United States are mixed in some way or form but there’s very little recognition of that. Black people have to live with the consequences of how blackness is constructed, we appear as such, but white people can really ignore all of that. It’s interesting I have some friends who are white couples who have adopted children of African descent and they’re for the first time thinking about how there aren’t dolls that represent their children. There aren’t things from mermaids to princesses. If there’s a different kind of consciousness, a different kind of claiming I think it can be very useful. Conversely, if it is something they will adamantly reject and make toxic conversation, I think it just repeats some of the old stereotypes and tropes and that’s not helpful. I would hope, and you said it’s kind of celebratory, and I hope there would be a kind of claiming of ones roots, a kind of celebration of blackness, which would be an extraordinary thing in a country that has never done that.

DLN: That’s the sense I got when I read the article, which is in itself huge.

RVF: I would hope so I would hope that would be the response.

WATER Thanks Professor Rima Vesley-Flad for this stimulating conversation. Her book, Racial Purity and Dangerous Bodies: Moral Pollution, Black Lives, and the Struggle for Justice (Fortress Press, 2017) makes a great resource for teaching and discussion groups.


Our next WATERtalk will be Wednesday March 8, 2018 from 1 PM ET to 2 PM ET with Monique Moultrie on her new book, Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality. All are welcome to join. REGISTER HERE.