May 5, 2008
Breaking the cycle
The crisis in our prisons is one of the most significant social issues the United States is facing, believes Liz Bounds, associate professor of Christian ethics for the Candler School of Theology, who will spend the coming year researching and writing about justice, forgiveness and grace and the role of churches in dealing with this problem.
“Our rates of incarceration are extraordinarily higher than other countries — more than one in 100 of our citizens is in prison, on parole or probation,” comments Bounds. “And we are also one of six countries responsible for the largest number of executions.”
“We have been in a long cycle of punitive attitudes, such as the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ legislation. I certainly understand that there are persons who should be incarcerated, but the degree and the conditions under which we incarcerate is a big problem.”
Bounds is receiving two awards to support her work. The first is a 2008-09 Lilly Theological Research Grant, a faculty fellowship awarded to a total of five faculty members in the U.S. The second award is a Christian Faith and Life Grant from The Louisville Institute.
“They told me this was the first time they can remember that someone has gotten both grants — I thought it was common!” says Bounds, who joined the faculty in 1997, later becoming the director of the Graduate Division of Religion and coordinator of the Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology.
She will use a sabbatical year from Candler to research and write two related volumes. One will be a practical guide for churches on possibilities of prison ministry and the second, for academics, a work on Christian ethics and the U.S. prison system.
In both works, she will draw upon research on prison systems, experiments in alternative sentencing, and faith-based nonprofits working on prison re-entry in Georgia, New York and Minnesota.
The more practical book will be designed for churches who accept the theological imperatives and are willing to face the challenges of engaging in some form of prison ministry — not only offering pastoral and worship resources but also possibly providing job training and placement, mentoring and transitional housing, or lobbying for improved state policies.
“Few churches systematic-ally consider what they might offer to persons in prison beyond a worship service, a nice meal and a Christmas package,” she says. “We don’t have the programs we need to deal with increased numbers being released — in 2006, there were over 20,000 persons on parole in Georgia alone.”
For more than 20 years, Bounds has been involved in educational programs for prisoners, including teaching spirituality and a creative writing class at a women’s prison in Atlanta.
“I have observed deeply damaged persons struggling to accept the wrongs they have done and to believe that they may truly be deserving of God’s love,” Bounds says.
“We need to get a grasp on the human element of being in prison. We are condemning large groups of people — disproportionately African American young men, but also men and women, boys and girls, of many races — to no future. It is heartbreaking. This is not what we think America is supposed to be.”
She adds, “When persons come out of prison, they have to have some way of making it so they don’t go back into crime and back into prison. You have to be strong to break this cycle. And we have to work on ways of preventing young people from starting the cycle in the first place. It’s both a policy question and a human question. Along with better education and better jobs, there also has to be someone — a parent or a teacher, a counselor or someone in the community — who believes in you and pays attention.”