Jason: Welcome to Postcolonial Networks (PN), Laura, and thank you for agreeing to converse with me about faith-based organizing and mass incarceration.
At PN we have been embroiled in conversations about the intersection of theory and practice, about how to discuss global justice in practical and accessible ways. This sort of conversation is especially relevant to faith communities that seek to involve themselves in efficacious social justice work. As one who can speak specifically to the U.S. context, would you tell us a bit about the work you do and why you do it? How does your self-identity and self-positioning influence the how and the what of your work?
Laura: Thanks—I am glad to join the conversation. The organizing work I do involves resourcing and connecting communities of faith to move in concrete ways to bring about restoration in place of desolation. Practically speaking this has included work to support the national private prison divestment movement, advocating sentencing reform to end draconian racial disparities in sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences, organizing to support the incredible movement led by those currently incarcerated to end torture in prisons, and work to remove barriers to a just re-entry for individuals returning home. I work to facilitate educational opportunities that build capacity with the goal of altering unjust systems of power and confronting human rights abuses. Relationship and humor are two of the strongest antidotes to shame and denial that we have. The best of our organizing involves bridging diverse communities and experiences to create opportunities for connection that unhinge indifference. In my work I draw on the rich liberative threads of our faith traditions, the threads that refute the idea that there are people who can be “thrown away” in our global family. I also work to challenge theologies that lead faith communities to perpetuate injustice.
As a euroamerican woman, my awakening to the reality of mass incarceration began while working with a faith-based organization that supported people returning home from prison in their pursuit of living-wage work. Each Monday morning at orientation, I would hear a nearly identical story from women and men of color describing having been incarcerated for a non-violent drug offense and returning home to face barriers at every turn as a result of their felony conviction. Their stories painted the picture Michelle Alexander would later describe aptly as “the new Jim Crow.” The label of “criminal” or “felon” justified all the forms of exclusion formerly based upon race under Jim Crow laws of segregation. What became clear to me was that what was truly criminal was the system of laws and policies that had come to constitute the war on drugs and the police state, making this reality for so many.
“Be accountable to your privilege.” That is the statement that drives my work. As a heterosexual, euroamerican (‘white’) woman with U.S. citizenship, I ask regularly, “what does it mean to be accountable to my privilege?” I will never fully comprehend the ongoing assault of racism, nor the experience of surviving the abuses accompanying the criminalization of communities of color. For me, faithfulness is about returning again and again to the question of accountability to my access. Just as mentors who came before me have been patient in their challenge as I continue to learn, and re-learn, I know it will take a lifetime to recover from my own racism, internalized sexism, heterosexism, and ableism.
My feminism brings me to restorative justice work from a commitment to be engaged in disrupting cycles of trauma and gender based violence. Our collective healing becomes possible as we take up the struggle together, name our history with honesty, and work to ensure that we break with cycles of trauma and oppression rather than repeat them.
Having only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s incarcerated: 2.2 million incarcerated and over 7 million under some form of correctional control, disproportionately and overwhelmingly from communities of color and impoverished communities. On any given day, over 81,000 people are held in conditions of solitary confinement, alone in a cell for 23-24 hours a day, save for one hour in an exercise cage not suitable for a dog. This isolation can extend for months, years, even decades and has been used as a tool of political repression and control. A vast majority of women behind bars in the U.S. are survivors of abuse and trauma. Under the current presidential administration, we have seen an unprecedented number of deportations. Despite the fact that euroamericans from communities of economic privilege are more likely to use and sell drugs, we have a nation that has incarcerated black, brown, and indigenous people, and disproportionately those facing mental illness and addiction, at rates unmatched globally. Our prisons and detention centers are sites of torture, places where political prisoners, children, and people of all ages are subjected to unthinkable months, years, and decades in solitary confinement and decades-long sentences as a result of mandatory minimums. Profit and social control are the aims of this web that tears at our collective fabric.
Jason: In your experience, what obstacles do faith communities encounter as they work toward justice—internal or otherwise? How do you address this in your work?
Laura: As inheritors of mighty visions of justice and peace in the prophetic tradition, in our faith communities we often have not been taught the practical skills of organizing and power analysis that would enable us to move practically from where we are to the alternative realities that we are called to midwife. We would be well served to have organizing and team-building principles taught to us in our Sunday school classes alongside Jesus’ parables that challenge our visions of community.
Our faith communities sometimes resist becoming students of good strategy, and become willing to accept easy solutions for fear of neglecting the spiritual in pursuit of changing the structural. It can be tempting for faith communities committed to justice as a concept to become content to say the right thing or make a statement with a rigorous perspective yet not do the difficult but necessary work of ensuring that real change happens through direct engagement with decision-makers to change unjust laws. We often like to talk about the problems; and gathering to discuss the problem can become a dangerous hobby when not accompanied by a willingness to get our hands dirty in the complexity that is organizing, building, creating alternatives, welcoming those unlike us into our homes and places of worship, and resourcing movement work.
Turf wars for scarce funding and ego can become major barriers, rooted in disconnection and distrust, in the work of faith communities seeking justice. Incredible energy is often expended to secure internal support for an issue, leaving little energy to obtain the public witness needed to change the situation. It can also be tempting for faith communities of privilege to engage in acts of mercy and to listen to “policy experts” while neglecting the voices of true experts—those who have survived criminalizing forces and who are working as a result of their experience to overturn them. For faith communities living authentically on the front lines of marginalizing forces, the work of meeting immediate need can make it challenging to have time and energy for organizing.
Jason: PN is invested in bridging various gaps, including that between the academy and the wider public. You build similar bridges in your work. Would you talk about the possibilities and pitfalls of this step? How, if at all, does academic research inform your activist work?
Laura: Academic research is fuel for my activism. Academic research has provided a depth of context for the lived lessons of activist work. The academic contributions of womanist, feminist, and liberation the@logians, historians, and critical race theorists have given me language to name the political and human dimensions of interlocking systems of injustice I encounter, and the historical narratives that have been deployed to justify them, as well as a wealth of resources for resistance. My own academic work has been important to a process of reconciling many contraries in my context. My feminism has led me to value academic engagement as an important and valuable resource for constructive resistance.
Academic work becomes a major pitfall when the theoretical becomes a mere intellectual exercise unaccompanied by embodied action to resist and transform. Some of the lessons that have most prepared me for my activist work have come not from carefully crafted and researched arguments but from the trial and error of endeavoring to build something in community. Many of the individuals I have learned the most from have earned a Ph.D. in life and resilience from life on the underside of systems of oppression.
Jason: Like PN you are invested in emancipatory and creative uses of social media. How do you use social media in your justice pursuits?
Laura: Social media can be an incredibly useful vehicle for storytelling and information sharing, particularly when accompanied by other forms of community building and when communicating a message that has a sense of felt-urgency. Facebook, Twitter, web and blog posts, listservs, online petitions, and action alerts can all be useful tools for moving timely messages to strategic targets to bring about change and making broad communication possible.
Jason: You share a commitment with us to decolonizing inquiry and movement. What affinity do you find between critiques of the prison industrial complex in the west and critiques of colonialism and neocolonialism? In other words, how, if at all, is resistance to the prison industrial complex postcolonial?
Laura: Work to resist the prison industrial complex is deeply postcolonial as it involves unveiling the historical and persistent cycles of violence that justify the mass warehousing of communities of color for profit under the guise of “safety and national security,” “corrections and rehabilitation,” and “getting tough on crime.” Recently the Secretary of the Department of Corrections for large state corrections systems shared publicly that despite already having a $2-billion annual budget at his disposal, if he were to go to legislators in his state and ask for another $100,000 to “keep them safe,” they would give it to him without question. In the name of “safety,” scarce resources would be made available at the expense of meeting basic human needs in the community.
The decolonizing impulse to interrogate historical narratives, including theological narratives, used to justify systems of oppression is a critical resource for resistance to the prison industrial complex in the U.S. context. Imperialist Christian narratives in the U.S. context persist in justifying ethnic-, religious-, and gender-based structural violence inherent in our systems of mass detention, deportation, and incarceration. Restorative justice and the postcolonial frame call us to address root causes of global migration, poverty, mental illness, and addiction with responses that lead to access to flourishing. They lay bare the lunacy and inhumanity of caging communities.
Jason: Movements for social justice and liberation often feel like an uphill battle with contingency and contradiction on every side. What keeps you going? What are the sources and ends of your striving? What is your vision of the good?
Laura: Experiences of beauty and connection with friends and loved ones who tell it like it is, and encounters with elders that remind me that all of this was around long before me, and will continue long after I am gone—keep me going. The joy is that I can play a part, my part, just like each of us can. That I am only called to do my piece, that there are so many others who share a similar fire in their bones so that none of it can be done alone, keeps me going. Poetry, dance, new ideas, ancient ideas, creativity, and getting moving in nature are sources of rejuvenation. My vision of the good is a vision of equity and shalom: that everyone would have access to the sustenance, balance of work, play, and rest, and beauty that are necessary to thrive, at the expense of no one. That where theft and greed have taken root, reparation would be made tenfold. I believe that this is possible and quite necessary for our global survival, and there are moments of unexpected grace when I glimpse it. My great grandmother, May, who lived in her home until passing at age 104, used to say, “everybody needs a little loving.” And I think her wisdom was profound. My vision of the good is that all would give and receive the love needed to be whole, which means, to be healed and live in joy and resilience.
Laura Markle Downton is the Director of U.S. Prisons Policy & Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. She has served as National Organizer for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, building networks among communities of faith engaged in the promotion of restorative justice and alternatives to incarceration. Laura has also worked with diverse faith communities, returning citizens and legal advocates for employment and housing justice in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. She holds a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary with specialization in Women’s Studies. Laura is a Midwest Academy trained organizer with certification from the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program of Eastern Mennonite University. She is a feminist liturgist and lapsed yogi who loves meditation, dance, and the healing power of song.