Christians should play a key role in reforming the nation's prison system, Dr. Harold Dean Trulear, national director of Healing Communities Prison Ministry says, by caring for the incarcerated already tied to their own congregations, leading discussions about reconciliation and redemption, rather than retribution, in the prison system, and investing resources in political action to change government incarceration policies.
Churches helped found the modern American prison system, explained Trulear, who is also associate professor of applied theology and director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Howard University, at an Aug. 15 lecture for the Center for Public Justice, "From Retribution to Redemption: Biblical Norms and Public Justice." Originally, prisoners were put in isolation as a pathway to redemption. In the quiet of their cells, those early Christian reformers believed, they could contemplate what they did wrong and would repent of their sins.
They were wrong, it turned out, that isolation leads to repentance, but a seed was planted that "prison should be a place of transformation, not punishment," Trulear said. Trulear wants to recover that role of the Church in America with Christians advocating for a criminal justice system that seeks to transform lives.
The word "justice" has several meanings, Trulear noted, but in America it is simply thought of as revenge. Rather than revenge, he believes, Christians should seek to recover a biblical understanding of justice that includes restoration and redemption, rather than retribution.
Sociologists have pointed to five requirements for prisoners to successfully re-enter society, Trulear said. In order of importance they are: 1) a change in attitude, 2) a change in social networking, 3) a change in their decision making process, 4) employment, and 5) housing.
Most government programs aimed at helping prisoners re-enter society focus on the fourth and fifth most important, but "what institution is best suited to help with the top three?" he asked rhetorically. "Congregations not already engaged in those three as regular activities, are not a good candidate for helping prisoners, and I probably don't want my kids there either."
Ministering to prisoners should not be considered "outreach," Trulear believes, but pastoral care.
For the past five years, Trulear has been speaking to congregations about prison ministry. He usually asks the pastors where he speaks if he can do an altar call for those who have family members in prison. Pastors usually respond with either "yes," "we don't have any," or "they would be too ashamed." He has never had an empty altar. And, he has never had fewer than 12 people come forward. At one megachurch, 400 stepped forward.
"It requires creating a culture," he said, "where we understand that as people of faith we're already connected to the criminal justice system, and that when we go to the prisons, engage the prisoner, we are not simply doing outreach, because you don't do outreach to members of your own family. It's a reclamation project."
Trulear suggested a three step process for Christians to lead the way on reforming the prison system. First, congregations should engage, holistically, with the incarcerated who already have ties to the congregation. Second, Christians should ask larger questions about the role of justice and the purpose of the criminal justice system for a public discussion about the role of redemption and restoration versus retribution. And third, Christians should then invest energy into government action that brings about reforms to the prison system.