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Incarceration is about social justice, racial equity


Amy Levad, the 2016 Fall Flannery Lecturer at Gonzaga, urges people to think of mass incarceration and criminal justice in terms of social justice, racial equity and racism, not just as law and order or crime issues.

Amy Levad says criminal justice needs to be about restoration.

“We need to think of it as communities struggling in poverty, the failed education system and the lack of resources,” she said.  “Instead of expecting a just response, the thought of police coming scares people. We need to think of the community as a whole, including communities on the margins.”

She addresses many concerns in her book, Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration.

Family members and people out of prison for years struggle in poverty because a criminal record makes it hard for someone to find a social safety net with housing, employment and basics on how to live, said Amy, whose sister was incarcerated.

Amy grew up Catholic in Grand Junction, Colo., where her mother was a director of religious education and her father was a high school educator.

When she was in college, her older sister who was in her 20s, suffered mental health issues and self-medicated with stimulants, making bad choices to support her habit.

Looking to the church for resources, Amy found little.  She began to learn about the criminal justice system, how many are thrown in prison and then left out.

“It turned into a personal, political, social and theological issue for me,” said Amy, who earned a bachelor’s in math and religious studies at the University of Puget Sound in 2001.

Planning to go to graduate school, she asked the American Academy of Religion what was written on mass incarceration and criminal injustice.

“I thought theologians needed to think about these issues from a theological perspective,” she said.

So Amy began graduate studies in Atlanta, completing a master’s in theology at Emory University and doctoral studies on Christian social ethics at Candler Seminary.

Working with four Protestant seminaries in Atlanta through the Atlanta Theological Association, she started a program for seminary students and faculty to teach classes in Metro State Prison, so inmates in a women’s prison could earn a theology certificate in a year.

After completing her doctoral studies in 2009, Amy became an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., where she is still on the faculty.

As a life-long Catholic, trained at Protestant institutions, she dove into Catholic thinking on these issues, related to liturgy, sacraments and ethics.

“The Eucharist is about justice and reconciliation when people harm each other,” she said of efforts to help the Catholic Church develop a response to mass incarceration.

“I speak and write about the inclusiveness of Christ’s table, which is not the way it is practiced.  Ideally the table is for all people, but the practice is flawed.”

As she seeks to repair relationships and bring people back into communities, she meets tension because of alienation over the sacrament of reconciliation. 

“We can’t just apply the theological to the secular,” she said.

Amy looks for ways the church can fix relationships, respond to victims, repair harms and restore community, rather than have the criminal justice system framed around retribution.

“My sister’s sentence affected many lives, not just hers, leaving her two-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter stigmatized and living with other family,” she said.

Amy’s sister had a breakthrough after prison, learning from an Oprah show about adult ADD, after she had been misdiagnosed with depression and directed to mental health channels. 

Her sister was able to stabilize, but it is still hard for her to find jobs and live above the poverty line.  The children are okay, but on the edges.

“We need to realize that mental health challenges are often not treated in the health care system, but in the prison system,” she said.

Although she is white and middle class, Amy learned that the criminal justice system affects African Americans, Latinos and poor people more harshly.  In addition to her classes in criminology and sociology, she went to a women’s prison several times a week, listening to the stories of women and what led them to be there.

“So many women are in prison because of problems with men.  In conversations, I learned that many were there because of drug crimes and murders,” she said.

The education program surfaced talent and insights so women could see that what they had to offer was much more than the worst thing they had done.

In her lecture, Amy recounted recent incidents of police officers killing black men and the resulting protests. She said protestors call for recognition of the humanity of people of color, reformation of policing, and liberation from the oppressive constraints of violence, profiling and implicit bias.  

Amy believes response to these incidents must account for a broader crisis of criminal justice built on racism, social injustice and retribution.

The incidents reveal the subtle violence wreaked by mass incarceration on everyone as members of a “prison society,” she said.

“Statistics about incarceration of blacks are troubling enough to raise serious questions about our criminal justice system’s discrepancies related to race, ethnicity and class,” said Amy, who is on the Board of Directors of Restorative Justice Community Action in Minneapolis.

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