Churches, Prisons, and the Powers That Be (Part 4)

Churches, Prisons, and the Powers That Be (Part 4)

In my last three posts, we reflected on “the powers that be” in some prisons. (See Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.)

In the case of Kalief Browder and others, time in prison is dominated by violence and fear. To identify a single cause is impossible. Rather, it seems a variety of factors in these prisons contributes to a climate of aggression that takes on a mind of its own, victimizing inmates and guards alike.

We’ve used prison ministry as the entry point into this conversation.

As a minister at a church involved in serving both the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, I want our members to recognize the violent and fearful powers bearing down on inmates. I also want those ministering to the formerly incarcerated—individuals not unlike Kalief Browder—to recognize the lasting effect their exposure to “the powers that be” in prisons may have had on them.

To clarify, I do not want Christians at our church to recognize this influence because I am concerned about the safety of these members. I want them to recognize this struggle, so that they can become adept witnesses, learning how to speak the gospel into each and every power struggle they encounter.

This is our calling.

Remember, Paul says, “That through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10 NRSV).

Prayer and Bible study with the incarcerated strikes me as an example of the heavenly proclamation Paul is talking about. As such, prison ministry is a clash of powers.

I’m thankful for those who are entering this fray.

But what about everyone else? Not everyone will do prison ministry. So is the violent power at work in the prison system a matter of concern for all Christians?


When Christians identify a power at work that is hostile to God’s plans for the restoration of individuals, they should be praying for the the redemption of that power—in this case, the transformation of prisons into places of rehabilitation and healing, rather than places of oppressive violence.

Is that possible?

Well, in the creation imagery of Colossians the redemption of dissonant powers does seem possible. There we read that in Jesus, “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him… and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:15-20).

So perhaps the transformation of a prison like Rikers is possible, but what would it look like? What would it look like if prisons didn’t operate by violence?

Consider Halden Prison, tucked away in a forest of southeast Norway. Looking at pictures of the prison, I get a different feeling than I do looking at the prison a few miles from my home. Less concrete and more trees. Fewer walls and more windows.

But it’s not just the looks that are different.

Inside, staff and inmates play sports together and eat meals together. Every inmate has a private room with a shower and flat screen TV. One murderer spends his day learning how to weld instead of being inside his cell for 23 hours. Classes and counseling on all sorts of topics are provided.

Wait, we say, I thought this was supposed to be prison!?

It is a prison. But there is a different power at work in Halden.

One prison worker describes the power like this: “It’s based on mutual respect between everybody … It’s that anybody can learn anything. Anybody can change their lives with the right kind of help, guidance, giving them a chance.”

She goes on to say: “They're not supposed to be punished. They’re supposed to serve time … Their punishment is being locked up. Their punishment is not to be treated badly while they're locked up.” [1]

The author of the piece says mutual respect is the “philosophy” of this prison.

How different that sounds from the “philosophy” of Rikers, which “seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.” [2]

Sure, we say, sounds nice.

But does compassionate incarceration work?

Well, Norway’s recidivism rate is less than half of ours.

Can we pray for prison reform along the lines of Halden? There, at Halden, we see the powers can be redeemed. Violent and unequal incarceration is one of the critical social justice issues of our time. It represents a power at odds with God’s design for rehabilitation and restoration. For that reason, all Christians should care.

To start caring, we need to start praying. Let’s pray for something a little more like Halden.


[1] Jeffrey Kofman, “In Norway, A Prison Built on Second Chances,” NPR, Cited June 25, 2015. Online:

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

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

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