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To Set the Captives Free: Justice for Black and Brown Communities in an Era of Mass Detention and Incarceration

To Set the Captives Free

Justice for Black and Brown Communities in an Era of Mass Detention and Incarceration


MT Dávila


What does justice look like when 1 out of every 4 African-American males, and 1 out of every 6 Latinx males in the United States faces some time in the criminal justice system? How are black and brown communities to develop a thriving economy, and solid representation in the political structures that control their fate when their young men and women disappear into the carceral state, only to come out with the stigma of being formerly incarcerated, unable to vote, and forced to “check the box” that states they’ve had a prior conviction on job applications? Mass detention and incarceration, the most current iteration of the legacy of slavery and conquest over black and brown bodies in the U.S., was the central question examined during the joint Colloquium of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States and the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, held in Albuquerque, NM, June 4-7, 2017. The gathering had participants consider theological, ethical, and policy approaches to this injustice within the context of the captivity –from neighborhoods and jails—and containment –in prisons—of black and brown bodies as dominant elements of U.S. culture and history.


Sociologically and historically this injustice requires coming to terms with the ways black and brown bodies have been controlled through public policy since the abolition of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and especially beginning with the 1980s “war on drugs.” “Tough on crime” policies imposed heavy prison sentences for minor drug offenses, primarily impacting black and brown communities. The effects of these policies today can be seen in the expansion of the prison industrial complex, where black and brown bodies are detained for the profit of a few corporations and individuals, not for the rehabilitation or restoration of the human beings behind bars.


Presenters raised the key theological and ethical question: what makes this level of violence against particular populations normal? We have become accustomed to seeing poverty in our midst and to criminalizing its inevitable effects, while increasing funding for the building of prisons and detention centers instead of education, housing, and equal employment opportunities. An operative anthropology of control heavily impacts our ability to see black and brown bodies as legitimately deserving freedom. This anthropology requires a deeper analysis of the systemic evils that impose worse life prospects for certain communities bearing “minority” class or racial markers in the U.S., often for the gain and benefit of dominant communities.


While reform is the dominant language of Catholic social teaching with respect to many social ills, the Colloquium focused on the language of prison abolition. This approach points out the ways the current system is particularly damaging black and brown persons as it fails to honor a Christian vision of the human being. As Puerto Rican ethicist Elías Ortega suggests, abolition language is important to dismantle the whitening of democracy. Since racism and the myth of white racial superiority is a fundamental element of the U.S. criminal justice system, interrupting this ideology demands that we infuse theological language about human rights and justice with abolition logic.


Other insights from our time together include:


  • Interdisciplinary approaches to mass incarceration and detention are best poised to yield accurate analysis, profound reflection, and creative solutions. Theological and ethical reflection on this injustice cannot be divorced from the historical, sociological, political, and economic facts that impose violent social policies and practices on black and brown communities.
  • Theological considerations of mass incarceration and detention must come to terms with the role that the Christian churches have played historically in the social vilification and criminalization of black and brown peoples. This should include consideration of the ways Churches continue to play into narratives of white privilege and white dominance that run counter to a God whose victory over evil is through subverting the violence of the cross with resurrection, as black theologian Kelly Brown Douglas suggests.
  • All critical academic enterprises on criminalization and detention should consult intimately with the voices and perspectives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folk, for the sake of legitimacy and solidarity. As ethicist Vincent Lloyd stated, we go to the jails and detention centers to learn effective strategies of resistance from them, not to teach them.

Catholic theological ethicists in the U.S. cannot stand by idly nor remain silent in the face of this violence.