Churches, Prisons, and the Powers That Be (Part 1)

Churches, Prisons, and the Powers That Be (Part 1)

Something happened to Kalief Browder in prison. We need to talk about it. A few weeks ago, Highland Church (Memphis) hosted the 42nd Annual National Jail & Prison Ministry Workshop. Hundreds of people who take seriously God’s concern for the imprisoned (see Matt 25; Luke 4:18; Heb 10:34; 13:3, among others) gathered to discuss the powerful work of serving the incarcerated.

I use that word “powerful” on purpose. Not because the work is meaningful, which it is, but because of what prison ministry is inherently—a clash of powers. At least that’s what I am coming to believe.

Let me explain.

The day before the conference I happened upon Kalief Browder’s story. Just before turning 17, Kalief was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and then was held for three years without trial before the charges were dropped.

He was incarcerated at Rikers Island, a complex notorious for violence from both inmates and corrections officers. The violence took its toll on Browder. He tried to take his own life repeatedly.

I wish Kalief’s story had a happy ending. It seemed like it might. He was released, enrolled in a local community college, and part of his tuition was even covered by someone who heard his story.

But a few weeks ago, Browder committed suicide.

Something happened to him in prison. Maybe it was the violence. Maybe the extended periods in solitary confinement.

Whatever it was, we might say more simply: Prison happened to him.

Which seems like an odd way to say it. To personify “prison” or incarceration as a thing with a mind of its own. An intent. A will. A power that reaches even beyond the walls of Rikers Island?

But maybe that’s the problem: we aren’t naming the powers (to use the language of late biblical scholar Walter Wink) .

You see, even the secular world recognizes this type of malicious spirit or power at work in the prison system. In a report on conditions at Rikers, one U.S. Attorney said Rikers “seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.” [1]

Which is to say that there is a spirit, a guiding principle, a power to which some (inmates, officers and administration) in prisons submit too. A power that operates by aggression and violence, fear and paranoia.

I am not suggesting that the entire justice system is so governed (and in a later post I will offer alternative and hopeful examples). Rather, I am insisting that when Christians encounter evidence like that presented in Kalief’s account, we have to recognize what we are actually up against.

That’s what I want to explore in the next few posts in this series. I am not an expert (or even a practitioner) in prison ministry. I don’t claim to be.

Rather, I want to use this example as a test case for helping our congregations think theologically about social justice and the spiritual dimensions of serving others. Perhaps, if we can better understand the powers at work in some of the prisons our churches are serving, we can begin to think more strategically about other areas of work as well.

I’ll leave you with Paul’s thoughts on this: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers and authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12, NRSV).


[1] See Jennifer Gonnerman, “Exclusive Video: Violence Inside Rikers, ” The New Yorker, Cited June 24, 2015. Online:

Header image credit: Jar (). Liberation. November 2, 2014. Retrieved from Some rights reserved.

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