Tag Archives: Jail

MA Thesis Presentation

Katy on Zoom, 19 Feb 2021

On 7 March 2021, I presented on my GTU Master’s Thesis “Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners” to my home parish, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (Saratoga, California) via Zoom (and broadcast to the church courtyard). I linked my slides here to make it easier to follow along. Here is the link to the video recording.

I have not yet posted the whole thesis – I think the GTU Library will be doing that eventually. I am still in the process of getting the final thesis signatures and the library is one of the last that needs to approve it.

St Andrews, 7 Mar 2021

8 March 2021 – updated text, added video link, and photo

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Busy Grad Student

Katy Dickinson Master's Thesis, Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners, 23 Jan 2021
Katy Dickinson Master’s Thesis, Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners, 23 Jan 2021

My Graduate Theological Union Master’s – Theology thesis is called “Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners.” I finished writing it at the end of January, successfully defended it at the start of February and am now working through minor edits with my GTU committee. (Hooray!) In parallel, I am continuing to take classes for GTU’s Interreligious Chaplaincy Certificate program. I am honored to have been accepted into a CPE (clinical pastoral education) program at Stanford Health Care later this year.

I finished a two-part January Intersession class in “Introduction to Pastoral Care and Theology,” and am now taking three GTU classes, “Diversity in Counseling,” “Pediatric Chaplaincy,” and “A Good Death.” Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all classes are online. Professors have to make up for the lack of in-person class time and meet the nine-hours-per-week / per class requirement. In addition to assigned reading and papers, my graduate classes meet by Zoom once or twice a week, plus posting 250 to 500 word reflections to Moodle (learning management system). Each class has a different schedule, so I created a table to remember when I need to post and when replies are due to other students’ posts. Every time I log into Moodle, it tells me how many more reflection posts I need to read. I end up posting to Moodle twelve to fourteen times a week. I will be happy when we can get back inside a real classroom.

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Jail Ministry News

Stepping Stones ministry, 27 Oct 2019
Stepping Stones ministry first anniversary, 27 Oct 2019

A national Episcopal Church news story on our jail ministry in the Diocese of El Camino Real was published yesterday, “El Camino Real Episcopalians Continue Jail and Reentry Ministries Despite Pandemic,” by Sharon Sheridan. There have been other news stories about Stepping Stones and our jail ministries, but this is the first national news. Congratulations to the Rev. Peggy Bryan and team for a remarkable contribution to a community that is too often ignored! Even my work in jail with Education for Ministry got a mention.

Update: Another news story was published yesterday by the Diocese of El Camino Real in their newsletter: “$25 UTO Grant Awarded to Stepping Stones Reentry Ministry,” RealEpiscopal – News from El Camino Real, 15 October 2020.

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Poems by Mohja Kahf

I recommend to you the poems of Dr. Mohja Kahf, whom you may know as the author of “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears.” Poet and scholar Mohja Kahf was born in Damascus, Syria. Her family moved to the United States in 1971, and Kahf grew up in the Midwest. She earned a PhD in comparative literature from Rutgers University. Her remarkable poetry books are:

We read Kahf’s poem “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet…” every term in the weekly classes I lead in Santa Clara County jail. It is one of the most popular selections in our Transforming Literature of the Bible course at Elmwood Jail. We read the poem to complement the story of Joseph in Egypt, as part of a discussion on being a bridge between cultures (Genesis 37-50). Volunteer jail chaplains are locked out now because of the Covid-19 quarantine but I look forward to returning. I miss my students!

In Hagar Poems, I found this one which seems very appropriate for the conversations our country is having now:

“Most Wanted”
by Mohja Kahf

Warning: God has slipped the noose.
We must confirm the worst
of our righteous fears –
God has escaped the mosque,
the synagogue, the church
where we’ve locked up God for years.

God is on the loose.

Henceforth beware:
You may find God in heathen beauty.
You may stumble upon God unaware.
Take appropriate measures:
You may have to behave
as if each human being
could reflect God’s face.

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Theodicy Meme

camper Jesus meme 5 June 2020
I love a good meme, so finding one on theodicy is a special treat. (“Theodicy means vindication of God. It is to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil.” – Theodicy in Wikipedia) The image base of Jesus sitting on a park bench, talking with a young man has been used for two memes I particularly like:

  • 24 March 2020: Man: “Facebook?” Jesus: “No, I literally want you to follow me.” Man: “So… Twitter?” Jesus: “I’m going to start over again and you can let me know where I lose you.”
  • 5 June 2020: Man: “So why do you allow things like hate, famine, war, suffering, disease, crime, homelessness, despair, etc. to exist in our world?” Jesus: “Interesting that you should ask because I was about to ask you the exact same question.”

The blank image can be found on imgflip if you want to make a meme yourself.

I have studied Christian Theology for two years at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and hope to finish my Master’s thesis by the end of this year. I also start work on my Certificate in Interreligious Chaplaincy in September, with a focus on Islamic Studies. My thesis topic is jail chaplaincy, so theodicy is of particular interest. Although theology has not been considered the “Queen of the Sciences” since the High Middle Ages, having the opportunity to gain understanding and inspiration from classes such as “God and Suffering” and “Christian Theology and Natural Science” has been an honor and privilege. Still, I appreciate a little levity on these weighty subjects.

camper Jesus meme 24 March 2020

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Liberation Theology and Jail

Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology (DSPT) God and Suffering texts, Spring 2020

Earlier, I wrote a post on the “God and Suffering” class at the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology (DSPT), in Berkeley. The class is inspiring and life-affirming despite the title. Our inspiring professor is Father Michael, also known as Michael J. Dodds, OP, Professor of Philosophy and Theology. I just turned in my final paper (hooray!) presenting readings from (among others), Augustine, Boethius, Dostoyevsky, Hume, Ireneus, John Paul II, Dorothy Doelle, Eleanore Stump, Desmond Tutu, Simone Weil, and Elie Wiesel, in the context of an additional book, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, and with reference to my volunteer chaplaincy in the Santa Clara County jail. It is long (16 pages with 3 pages of Bibliography) but I am proud of it.

Final Assignment
By Katy Dickinson
STPH-2209-1: GOD AND SUFFERING (Spring 2020)
22 May 2020


This essay presents selected assigned readings in this semester’s “God and Suffering” course in the context of an additional book, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, and with reference to my volunteer chaplaincy in the Santa Clara County jail.[1] It is also a conversation with ideas presented in my “Initial Assignment” dated 13 February 2020, and subsequent weekly reflection papers. I assert that the study of theology, no matter how ancient or abstruse the theologian, has a strong place in inspiring discussions with the incarcerated. In my “Initial Assignment,” I wrote, “a big part of what I want to learn in this class is additional ways to approach some of the questions raised by inmates, both so that I can better support my students and bring more resources and understanding in this area to my GTU thesis.” This semester, the corona virus lockdown has disrupted my jail ministry because no volunteer chaplains have been able to go into county jail since 11 March 2020. In an ironic reversal, we are locked out of jail. In addition, Canon Barnwell, my mentor, died from corona virus in March 2020.[2] I miss him, and I miss my students inside. I hope that our many “God and Suffering” readings, role models, and insights will encourage and inspire the inmates once I can start leading jail classes again.

What Does it Mean to Suffer?

The question I have considered most often in this class is, what does it mean to suffer? In hundreds of jail seminars over five years, I have never heard my incarcerated students explicitly tell me that they are suffering. Objectively, I would say that they are indeed suffering because of how often I hear them speak about missing their families and freedom, and how frightened they are to be at the dubious mercy of our unjust system of justice. However, they do not use the word suffering to describe what they are experiencing, as Jesus and Paul do. It may be that in contemporary American society, we only use suffering when speaking about other people. One of the few succinct definitions of evil and suffering from our “God and Suffering” reading was from Pope John Paul II,

Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he “ought”—in the normal order of things—to have a share in this good and does not have it.[3]

In our discussions in jail, some of the most difficult student questions have to do with why they or their friends are being punished out of proportion to their offenses (like the 990-years-to-life sentence one of my students was given in February). I was delighted to read in Gustavo Gutiérrez’s On Job a similar sentiment, “The question for Job is not whether or not he is a sinner; he knows well that as a human being he is indeed a sinner. The question rather is whether he deserves the torments he is suffering.”[4] Gutiérrez’s analysis of Job’s circumstances aligns with my own observation of my incarcerated students. Few are innocent, but most are over-punished. I assert that many inmates are greatly over-punished because they are too poor to pay bail or hire a capable lawyer. Many of my jail students are incarcerated for years un-convicted, awaiting trial, as are about 65% of jail inmates.[5] When I next lead a discussion on the Book of Job in jail, Gustavo Gutiérrez is going to be prominently featured.

In the Bible, suffering seems to be used to indicate a condition that is temporary, versus affliction which implies more of an ongoing state. I base this observation on searching the New Revised Standard Version text on the website biblegateway.com.[6] The Old Testament uses suffer / suffers / suffering, etc. 54 times; however, the much shorter New Testament uses those words 92 times. Based on these statistics, it seems that the word translated as suffering is a more important word in Christian scriptures. The Old Testament uses variants of the word affliction more often (61 times) than does the New Testament (19 times total, 15 of them in the Apocrypha). Perhaps, this word usage represents a shift in the theology of the New Testament?

Theology and Suffering

Gutiérrez writes a great deal about what theology means. He opens On Job with, “Theology is talk about God,”[7] and the first part of A Theology of Liberation is a “reflection on the theological meaning of the process of human liberation.”[8] However, although he uses variations of the word over forty times in A Theology of Liberation, and over 250 times in On Job, Gutiérrez does not define suffering. Words he uses in association with suffering include, poverty, oppression, neglect, hunger, poor living conditions, despoliation, mistreatment, violence, injustice, exploitation, anguish, domination, despised, victims, marginalized, and evil. Gutiérrez is more likely to use poverty as a stand-in for what others might call anguish or suffering. He writes,

The world of the poor is a universe in which the socio-economic aspect is basic but not all-inclusive. In the final analysis, poverty means death: lack of food and housing, the inability to attend properly to health and education needs, the exploitation of workers, permanent unemployment, the lack of respect for one’s human dignity, and unjust limitations placed on personal freedom in the areas of self-expression, politics, and religion. Poverty is a situation that destroys peoples, families, and individuals.[9]

The personal experience of Gutiérrez not only with the pain of physical disability as a young man, but also working in a pastoral ministry among Lima’s poor, gives force to his assertion, “Job’s words are a criticism of every theology that lacks human compassion and contact with reality; the one-directional movement from theological principles to life really goes nowhere.”[10] It seems clear that Gutiérrez has fought most of his life to help the poor directly, as well as to promote and institutionalize the preferential option for the poor and liberation theology. That he has been largely successful is reflected in the quote from Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, “Liberation theology more than any other kind of theology issues out of the crucible of human suffering and anguish.”[11]

“Ambiguities in the Term ‘Poverty’” is important enough to be one of Gutiérrez’s Theology of Liberation subheadings.[12] It seems to me that the ambiguity of poverty addressed by Gutiérrez is similar to what others call the mystery of suffering. Three big poverty categories Gutiérrez addresses are, material poverty (defined in the negative, as a subhuman situation, a scandalous condition), spiritual poverty (defined in the positive, as an attitude of openness to God and spiritual childhood), and Christian poverty or solidarity with the poor (defined in the positive, as an expression of love and a protest against poverty).[13] Toward the end of Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez comments in surprise, “poverty is a notion which has received very little theological treatment and in spite of everything is still quite unclear.”[14] Perhaps in 1973 when Theology of Liberation was first published, there had been less theological consideration of poverty because it was often conflated with suffering? Gutiérrez’s work was initially controversial, so he was investigated repeatedly by the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Peruvian bishops, who were looking for unorthodoxy in Gutiérrez’s writings and concerned about the methodology and content of liberation theology.[15] However, the continuing importance of Gutiérrez’s ideas in Theology of Liberation is demonstrated in that many were addressed by Pope John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern), including, lack of development of poor countries, freedom and solidarity based on the dignity of the human person, liberation, and the preferential option for the poor.[16] In recent years, Pope Francis has become an advocate for the preferential option for the poor, and for Gutiérrez.[17]

In God and the Mystery of Human Suffering, Robin Ryan writes, “Theology involves a ‘conversation’ between present experience (which is always culturally situated) and the tradition of faith.”[18] Ryan leaves both theology and suffering open to interpretation, as when he opens Chapter 1 with, “The Bible as a whole, and the Hebrew scriptures in particular, do not offer a single, uniform perspective on the reality of suffering and God’s relation to suffering people.”[19] These varied perspectives are expanded on by Ryan when he lists six key themes of engaging and experiencing suffering in the Hebrew scriptures: 1) lament; 2) the law of retribution; 3) suffering as mystery (Book of Job); 4) suffering and sacrifice; 5) the apocalyptic solution; 6) the suffering of God.[20] In Chapter 2 on the New Testament, Ryan goes on to present at least five additional interpretations of suffering, 1) evidence of the presence of evil in creation;[21] 2) Evidence that Paul participated in the suffering of Jesus – evidence of engagement that helped Paul spread the Gospel (also in Romans 5:3);[22] 3) A vocational process for Jesus to become high priest (also in Hebrews 5:8-10);[23] 4) Evidence that Jesus was human;[24] 5) A rite of passage for Christian believers (also in 2 Timothy 1:8).[25] Ryan offers a spectrum of valid interpretations of suffering in the Bible; however, they seem intellectual and abstract when compared to Gutiérrez’s visceral engagement with the actuality of poverty and degradation.

Gutiérrez can be scornful of those whose engagement of poverty and suffering is primarily in the abstract. He writes of Job’s friends, “Theirs is the wasted energy of intellectuals who get excited but do not actually do anything.”[26] Gutiérrez also calls Job’s friends conceited, mistaken, untouched, foolish theologians, and says that Job is blazing a trail “that will permit theologians not to become ‘worthless doctors’ and ‘sorry comforters’ to those who are suffering.”[27] For Gutiérrez, there is a need for action and engagement, “It is for all these reasons that the theology of liberation offers us not so much a new theme for reflection as a new way to do theology… This is a theology which does not stop with reflecting on the world, but rather tries to be part of the process through which the world is transformed.”[28]

I am glad we started “God and Suffering” with the Book of Job and that Job was a touchstone for suffering throughout the course. Whenever my jail class reads Job, the men’s first response is always “that’s not fair!” with questions about why God lets so many bad things to happen to such a good person. I do not have good answers. My best approach has been to point out that in Job 38-42, God spends a great deal of time presenting his creation, power, and glory to Job in compelling and beautiful word images. In so doing, God is not slapping down Job’s questioning but treats Job as a beloved young son, explaining who they are to each other through concrete examples that a man can understand. God’s context and understanding of suffering is infinitely greater than Job’s. In my view, God demonstrates Job’s importance by the length of his response and supports their relationship while also showing how different they are. In On Job, Gutiérrez added depth to my understanding. I was not expecting Gutiérrez to be so charming in characterizing God as sarcastic and amused as well as loving and reassuring, as when he writes, “Job, like the ostrich, may have lacked wisdom in his life, but he is still pleasing to God the creator.”[29] Gutiérrez’s interpretation adds depth and personality to God by presenting animals in Job 39 not just as an illustration of God’s power but also to show, “Utility is not the primary reason for God’s action; the creative breath of God is inspired by beauty and joy.”[30]

Ancient and Modern

Many of our class readings were new to me or works I had not studied for years. While I very much enjoyed re-reading Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, parts of it were painful in the context of my jail ministry. In Book IV, the personification of Wisdom makes dated pronouncements about evil, wickedness, vice, crime, and punishment that seem extremely ill considered based on what we know now. I understand that The Consolation of Philosophy is from a time (c. 524 CE) when it was normal to say vicious men are changed into beasts (that is non-humans).[31] However, after years of spending many hours each week in the company of jail inmates trying to improve their lives, it seems to me that criminal acts (and resulting severe judicial punishment) are more often associated with poverty, low social and class standing, poor education, addiction, family trauma, and / or mental illness than they are with moral evil. Regrettably, privileged pontificating, grim moral judgements, and legal punishments upon the marginalized, and calling them non-humans, is normal in our time too. I was particularly frustrated by Boethius writing, “These guilty men ought to be brought, by accusers kindly rather than angry, to justice, as patients to a doctor, that their disease of crime may be checked by punishment.”[32] Today, we know that doctors are often the answer to mental illness, trauma, and addiction, but not so that they can prescribe punishment.

In addition to discussing suffering, our class has sometimes considered associated subjects, including evil, sin, and the Devil. In jail, inmates often assume that they are inside because God is testing them, or the Devil has them in his power, or that they have done something so evil that even God will not forgive them. Some of this is in response to evangelical preachers holding forth on the unforgiveable sin (as specified in Mark 3:28–29, Matthew 12:31–32, and Luke 12:10). In class readings from St. Augustine and St. Irenaeus, I was particularly interested in the development of Augustine’s ideas in his Confessions, in Book VII, Chapters I-XIV (397-400 CE).[33] Through intense and personal analysis, he considers the Manichees, astrology, and the Platonists, but keeps coming back to basic questions about good, evil, and free will. Augustine seems to have come to a firm understanding of God long before he reasons through his thinking about evil. Book IV, Chapter III is the only part of our assigned reading in which Augustine considers the devil as a personification. He does not seem to question that the devil (or angels, or dragons) exist but wants to know if an evil will transformed a good angel into the devil, where that evil will came from. Many of Augustine’s reflections are fascinating but may be too abstruse to inspire inmates.

Like St. Augustine, St. Irenaeus in Against Heresies (180 CE) presents God’s long-term plan for human power and capacity for good or evil but Irenaeus seems more positive and easier to understand. He writes that people are created with the power and choice to do good or evil but that God has planned for their evolution, “…He knew the infirmity of human beings, and the consequences which would flow from it; but through [His] love and [His] power, He shall overcome the substance of created nature. That is, that man’s human nature should not prevent him from becoming a partaker of the divine.”[34] This feels like a more modern, relational, view of the interaction of God with those made in His image. St. Irenaeus allows for the potential of people to grow toward God despite their sins. Sharing this ancient saint’s perspective will be very helpful to the inmates who feel unforgiveable.

Another line of thought that I will work into the jail seminars is in Michael Dodds’s article “Thomas Aquinas, Human Suffering, and the Unchanging God of Love.” Dodds writes of God and suffering and mystery, “God is mystery: the mystery of infinite being, of infinite life, the eternal triune dance of wisdom and love. And suffering is also mystery: the mystery of lack of being, privation of goodness, the surd of nothingness in the bounty of creation.”[35] (Gutiérrez also opens On Job with the mystery of God, but he does not say that suffering is a mystery.) Dodds writes that the attractive but imperfect concept of God suffering with us is incompatible with the nature of God, asking, “whether it is possible for a fellow sufferer to be a truly loving God and whether a God who merely suffers with us is not already too remote from us to be the revealed God of the Christian tradition.”[36] Dodds responds to his own question, “Only an entirely perfect being, subject to no defect and lacking in nothing, is able to love with a fully gratuitous love.”[37] He goes on to present Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of the mystery of God intimately and compassionately identifying with our suffering, “because the head and members are one body.”[38] When our jail classes discuss the nature of God and his relationship to us, Aquinas’s reasoning will deepen the discussion. It is a particularly good rebuttal to the insipid “Jesus is my best friend” meme. I was inspired by Dodds’s closing description of the role of theologians because it feels like my goals as a teacher, “not to give easy answers to difficult questions… rather to lead them into the mystery of God and so help them learn to speak of God for themselves.”[39]

Some of the topics we studied in “God and Suffering” were interesting in themselves but only contained small bits that might support or inspire inmate discussions. For example, during our week reading Modern and Contemporary Philosophy, in David Hume’s “Evil and the God of Religion,” the part that seemed most pertinent was his vibrant list of the ills of this world, “a hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field of battle strewed with carcasses, a fleet foundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence.”[40] That same week offered a gem by Eleonore Stump. She gives serious consideration to the matter of choice (which word she uses 23 times) and summarizes Swinburne’s argument, “Men cannot make serious and effective choices between good and evil unless they know which of their actions will result in good and which in evil.”[41] Hume’s list and Stump’s summary will each make an engaging focus for a theological reflection in class.

Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor

Unlike our readings in Modern and Contemporary Philosophy, the material we discussed from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov has already been the subject of many jail discussions. Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” is assigned reading for my seminar; we read it aloud after reading Luke 1-4. It is the longest literary selection in our Transforming Literature of the Bible (TLB) jail study materials and always stimulates and energetic class discussion about how free we really want to be. Dostoyevsky is particularly credible to the inmates because of his personal experience with the law. He was sentenced to death for reading banned books and but later his sentence was commuted to four years in exile with hard labor in a Siberian prison camp, followed by six years of compulsory military service.

In re-reading “The Grand Inquisitor” for “God and Suffering,” I reflected for the first time on the relationship of the character the Grand Inquisitor to the Devil in Ivan Karamazov’s story and how it could engage inmates who believe that the Devil has them in his power. Ivan says that the cardinal loved humanity and thought that the best way to help them was to turn away from Jesus and to use his power to make people’s choices for them, to take away their freedom.[42] Taking this new path seems partly to be motivated by the cardinal’s admiration for the Devil, or at least for his counsel. The cardinal does not name the Devil but refers to the “wise and dread spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence” and “the wise and mighty spirit.”[43] Ivan in his closing analysis also calls the Devil “the great dread spirit” and says that the cardinal feels he must follow “the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction, and therefore accept lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction.”[44] It seems that Ivan’s story-poem is intended to show how twisted humans can become when given power, even when motivated by a love of humanity. So twisted is the cardinal by his love that he willingly becomes an agent of the Devil. When we chaplains are allowed to go back into jail, I plan to introduce this interpretation in our discussions of “The Grand Inquisitor.” I look forward to hearing what the inmates think about it.

Role Models

Elie Wiesel’s stark life experiences, like those of Dostoyevsky, will give him credibility with the inmates. Many of the circumstances of incarceration in a concentration camp are very similar to what I see in county jail. I am considering how to introduce a section of Night to the jail seminar readings. When Wiesel entered the concentration camp Auschwitz, the man in charge of their barracks gives a short speech,

Ahead of you lies a long road paved with suffering. Don’t lose hope. You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death. Hell does not last forever…[45]

This feels very like jail where inmates do not know what will happen next, they may be released to their families or kept inside for years, awaiting slow justice or never-going-to-arrive mercy. Men of faith among the inmates already in the dorm reach out to new arrivals, giving them talks like the one Wiesel heard entering Auschwitz. Even if they do not know if what they say is true, the men want new inmates to have an early connection in the dorm community. Hearing a message of hope may reduce the potential for despair and suicide that are all-too-common in jail.

Wiesel wrote of Auschwitz, “We did not know, as yet, which was the better side, right or left, which road led to a prison and which to the crematoria.”[46] Selection is a recurring theme in Night, where the word is used over twenty times as prisoners are sorted again and again by the Nazis. The criteria for selection vary or are unknown – sometimes skills, or health, or age, or to be an experimental subject of the notorious Dr. Mengele. Like Job, who because of his righteousness is picked by the Lord for torture by Satan, Wiesel and the Jews were selected by the Nazis. In Night, Wiesel only mentions Job once[47] but Ryan writes, “The protest against innocent suffering that is evident in Night is found throughout Wiesel’s writings. He holds up Job as a biblical character who exemplifies this stance of protest from within faith.”[48] Ryan quotes Wiesel, “’Thus he did not suffer in vain; thanks to him, we know that it is given to man to transform divine injustice into human justice and compassion.’”[49] Like Job, Wiesel rejects the selection and the torture but continues to speak to God.

Dorothee Soelle writes of Simone Weil that her “theme is suffering”[50] and says that in her short life, Weil in “went the way of solidarity through sharing the suffering,” by choosing to work in a factory and living like the poor and most helpless despite her physical disabilities.[51] I think Weil would serve as a good role model for some inmates because her actions are consistent with Gutiérrez’s third category of poverty, what he calls solidarity with the poor. Like Gutiérrez sometimes using poverty as an understanding of suffering, Weil offers a special interpretation for affliction within the realm of suffering.[52] She does not define it just as a continuing state of suffering, as in the Old Testament discussed above, but rather writes, “Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain.”[53] She continues, “The great enigma of human life is not suffering but affliction. It is not surprising that the innocent are killed, tortured, driven from their country, made destitute or reduced to slavery, put in concentration camps or prison cells, since there are criminals to perform such actions.”[54]

Although jail and prison are a regular theme in scripture, mentioned 120 times in the Bible,[55] it is surprising that Gutiérrez rarely mentions prison or jail despite his long advocacy for the poor. The Prison Policy Initiative reports, “People in prison and jail are disproportionately poor compared to the overall U.S. population.”[56] Perhaps because of Weil’s own experience being from a Jewish family working for the resistance against the Nazis, and because she lived and worked with the poor, she addresses crime directly, mentioning it over thirty times in the writings, “Evil,”[57] “Affliction,”[58] and “The Love of God and Affliction.” While her comments on crime are not cohesive, Weil is remarkably sensitive to the evil inherent (and very present) in the prison system when she writes,

The apparatus of penal justice has been so contaminated… that a condemnation is very often a transference of evil from the penal apparatus itself to the condemned man; and that is possible even when he is guilty, and the punishment is not out of proportion. Hardened criminals are the only people to whom the penal apparatus can do no harm. It does terrible harm to the innocent.[59]

I was inspired by the potential for faith to change the systemic evil of incarceration when reading Weil, “Nothing is pure enough to bring purity to the places reserved for crime and punishment except Christ, who was himself condemned by the law.”[60] I plan to present Weil’s life along with some of her thoughts and writings on crime in my thesis, and to share them with my jail class.

The last readings I will address are by Desmond Mpilo Tutu, the retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, Nobel Prize winner, and one of my personal heroes. Like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Tutu grew up with physical disabilities, and has long been a controversial advocate for solidarity with the poor, liberation theology, and developing new theologies based on unique context and experience. He writes, “African and Black Theology are a sharp critique of how theology has tended to be done mostly in the North Atlantic world… Western theology is no more universal than another brand of theology can ever hope to be.”[61] Gutiérrez also writes in favor of new theologies arising from experience,

Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers.[62]

In his 1982 testimony before the Eloff Commission of Inquiry of the oppressive South African apartheid government, Tutu showed himself to be a brave advocate for engagement with the poor. He said, “the Christian Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ Our Lord is subversive of all injustice and evil, oppression and exploitation… God is on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden.”[63] He continues later, “Our God does not permit us to dwell in a kind of spiritual ghetto, insulated from real life out there.”[64] It is no wonder that Gutiérrez shows his admiration for Tutu by quoting him at length in the Introduction to On Job.[65]


I have met the goal stated in my first paper because many “God and Suffering” readings have indeed brought me new insights. Even though it now seems like chaplains may not be able to re-enter jail until late 2020, I am looking forward to getting back to the inmates with whom I can share what I have learned. The study of theology, no matter how old or difficult to understand, is important in discussions with the incarcerated. In addition appreciating more ways to interpret suffering, being introduced to new readings, and gaining a deeper understanding of well-known readings, I have discovered role models whose lives can inspire the inmates. These include Job, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Elie Wiesel, Simone Weil, and Desmond Tutu.


Augustine. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Translated by Edward B. Pusey. Project Gutenberg, 2002. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm.

[Bible Keyword, Passage, or Topic Search]. Biblegateway. Accessed 21 May 2020, https://www.biblegateway.com/.

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by W.V. Cooper. Ex-Classics Project, 2009. https://www.exclassics.com/consol/consol.pdf.

Dodds, Michael. “Thomas Aquinas, Human Suffering, and the Unchanging God of Love.” Theological Studies 52 (1991): 330-344. http://cdn.theologicalstudies.net/52/52.2/52.2.5.pdf.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Constance Garnett. New York: The Lowell Press. Project Gutenberg, 2009. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/28054/28054-pdf.pdf.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History Politics, and Salvation. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Maryknoll. NY: Orbis Books, 1987.

Horne, Jed. “Community Organizer, Author The Rev. William Barnwell Dies at 81.” The Lens. 29 March 2020, https://thelensnola.org/2020/03/29/community-organizer-author-the-rev-william-barnwell-dies-at-81/.

Hume, David. “Evil and the God of Religion.” In The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings. Edited by Michael L. Peterson. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992, 39-56.

Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Translated by Philip Schaff. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, The Early Church Fathers – Ante Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers: Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Chapter XXIX, 1885. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.vi.xl.html.

John Paul II. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. In David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon, Catholic Social Thought: Encyclicals and Documents from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Francis. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016, 424-470.

John Paul II. Salvifici Doloris. The Holy See, John Paul II, Apostolic Letters, 1984, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris.html.

Ryan, Robin. God and the Mystery of Human Suffering: A Theological Conversation Across the Ages. New York: Paulist Press, 2011.

Sawyer, Wendy and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: the Whole Pie 2020.” Prison Policy Initiative, 24 March 2020. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html.

Soelle, Dorothee. “The Religion of Slaves.” In Suffering. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975, 151-178.

Stump, Eleanore. “Knowledge, Freedom, and the Problem of Evil.” In The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings. Edited by Michael L. Peterson. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992, 317-329.

Tutu, Desmond. “The Divine Intention.” In Hope and Suffering. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983, 153-189.

Tutu, Desmond. “The Role of the Church in South Africa.” In Hope and Suffering. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983, 74-87.

Weil, Simone. “Affliction.” In Gravity and Grace. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952.

Weil, Simone. “Evil.” In Simone Weil Reader. New York: David McKay Company, 1977, 381-390.

Weil, Simone. “The Love of God and Affliction.” In Simone Weil Reader. New York: David McKay Company, 1977, 439-468.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958.

Wooden, Cindy. “Pope Reflects on Changed Attitudes Toward Liberation Theology.” Crux: Taking the Catholic Pulse, 14 February 2019. https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2019/02/pope-reflects-on-changed-attitudes-toward-liberation-theology/.


[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History Politics, and Salvation, Rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).

[2] Jed Horne, “Community Organizer, Author The Rev. William Barnwell Dies at 81,” The Lens, 29 March 2020, https://thelensnola.org/2020/03/29/community-organizer-author-the-rev-william-barnwell-dies-at-81/.

[3] John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, The Holy See, John Paul II, Apostolic Letters, 1984, 4, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris.html.

[4] Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll. NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 24.

[5] Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, “Mass Incarceration: the Whole Pie 2020” (Prison Policy Initiative, 24 March 2020), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html.

[6] [Bible Keyword, Passage, or Topic Search], Biblegateway, accessed 21 May 2020, https://www.biblegateway.com/.

[7] Gutiérrez, On Job, xi.

[8] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, xiv.

[9] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, xxi.

[10] Gutiérrez, On Job, 30.

[11] Gutiérrez, On Job, xiv.

[12] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, 163-165.

[13] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, 171-173.

[14] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, 163.

[15] Robin Ryan, God and the Mystery of Human Suffering: A Theological Conversation Across the Ages (New York: Paulist Press, 2011), 245.

[16] John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, in David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon, Catholic Social Thought: Encyclicals and Documents from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Francis (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016), 424-470.

[17] Cindy Wooden, “Pope Reflects on Changed Attitudes Toward Liberation Theology,” Crux: Taking the Catholic Pulse, 14 February 2019, https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2019/02/pope-reflects-on-changed-attitudes-toward-liberation-theology/.

[18] Ryan, 16.

[19] Ryan, 19.

[20] Ryan, 20.

[21] Ryan, 52, 80.

[22] Ryan, 65-66.

[23] Ryan, 68.

[24] Ryan, 71.

[25] Ryan, 78, 80.

[26] Gutiérrez, On Job, 29.

[27] Gutiérrez, On Job, 12, 27, 30, 39.

[28] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, 12.

[29] Gutiérrez, On Job, 74.

[30] Gutiérrez, On Job, 75.

[31] Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. W.V. Cooper (Ex-Classics Project, 2009), 51, https://www.exclassics.com/consol/consol.pdf.

[32] Boethius, 53.

[33] Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. Edward B. Pusey (Project Gutenberg, 2002), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm.

[34] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, trans. Philip Schaff (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, The Early Church Fathers – Ante Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers: Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Chapter XXIX, 1885), 5, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.vi.xl.html.

[35] Michael Dodds, “Thomas Aquinas, Human Suffering, and the Unchanging God of Love,” Theological Studies 52 (1991), 330, http://cdn.theologicalstudies.net/52/52.2/52.2.5.pdf.

[36] Dodds, 332.

[37] Dodds, 333.

[38] Dodds, 341.

[39] Dodds, 343.

[40] David Hume, “Evil and the God of Religion,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 42.

[41] Eleanore Stump, “Knowledge, Freedom, and the Problem of Evil,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 319.

[42] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Project Gutenberg, 2009), 329, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/28054/28054-pdf.pdf.

[43] Dostoyevsky, 316.

[44] Dostoyevsky, 329.

[45] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958), 41.

[46] Wiesel, 32.

[47] Wiesel, 45.

[48] Ryan, 174.

[49] Ryan, 177.

[50] Dorothee Soelle, “The Religion of Slaves,” in Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 154.

[51] Soelle, 152-154.

[52] Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” in Simone Weil Reader (New York: David McKay Company, 1977), 439.

[53] Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” 440.

[54] Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” 441.

[55] [Bible Keyword, Passage, or Topic Search], Biblegateway, accessed 21 May 2020, https://www.biblegateway.com/.

[56] Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, “Mass Incarceration: the Whole Pie 2020.”

[57] Simone Weil, “Evil,” in Simone Weil Reader (New York: David McKay Company, 1977).

[58] Simone Weil, “Affliction,” in Gravity and Grace (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952).

[59] Weil, “Evil,” 384.

[60] Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” 465.

[61] Desmond Tutu, “The Role of the Church in South Africa”, in Hope and Suffering (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 74-75.

[62] Gutiérrez, On Job, xiv.

[63] Desmond Tutu, “The Divine Intention”, in Hope and Suffering (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 155.

[64] Tutu, “The Divine Intention,” 175.

[65] Gutiérrez, On Job, xiv.

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Incarceration and Theology

Citadel of Qaitbay window, Alexandria Egypt, Feb 2018

The Graduate Theological Union where I am a Master’s student requires us to take a “Research Methods” class before writing our 90-page thesis, or capstone paper. The final paper of Research Methods is intended to be a chapter in that thesis.  What follows is the paper I submitted earlier this month in which I argue that some practices associated with relational theology promote better outcomes for prisoners and may lower recidivism. I start work on my thesis in the Spring term in February 2020.

Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners

By Katy Dickinson
MA-1000: Research Methods (Fall 2019)
16 December 2019


There is a range of chaplain engagement and practices with prisoners that reflects both sociology and theology. Chaplain practices range from missionary to relational and chaplain engagement durations range short-term to long-term. In this paper, I argue that some practices associated with relational theology promote better outcomes and may lower recidivism. I have used two primary sources for inmate engagement examples, Tanya Erzen’s God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration,[1] and Laura Bates’s Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, a Memoir.[2]  I also consider the theology presented by Arthur Peacocke, in Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming – Natural, Divine, and Human,[3] as well as drawing examples from my own experience since 2015 as a volunteer chaplain on the men’s side at Elmwood jail in Santa Clara County.

After presenting information about incarceration, I will explore examples of inmate engagement by Erzen and Bates and show how these define the range. See the Appendix for a graphic that visualizes the range of engagement. My focus is on male Christian prisoners because this is the group with which I have the most experience as a jail chaplain. In America, 93% of prisoners are male[4] and 68% are reported to be Christian.[5] Women were 7% of the total prison population in 2017.[6] It may be that my research includes or pertains to other prisoner groups, or to other elements of the penal system such as the justice courts and the parole system; however, those are not the center of my study. In particular, while there are sociological differences between male and female prisoners, I have not observed theological differences. My work represents more practical theology than academic research. I have found comparatively few academic resources about ministry to the incarcerated and ex-inmates. This paper is a subset of my developing Master’s thesis on the range of chaplain engagement and how understanding it can benefit prisoners. It is a small addition to a much-needed field of study.

Incarceration and the Marginalized

Jail and prison numbers reflect the lives of the most marginalized in American society. The Prison Policy Initiative reports not only the overall volume but the much-higher churn of prisoners cycling through county jails, “The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people… Every year, over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year.”[7] These numbers are substantiated by The Sentencing Project, “The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last forty years.”[8] The good news is that state and federal incarceration rates went down 13% from 2007 to 2017.[9]

Jail and prison are different in some ways. Whether or not they are guilty, 76% of people held in American jails are not convicted of any crime. Many un-convicted people remain in jail because they are too poor to make bail. Prison inmates have been convicted. Inmates are usually in a jail near their home community. Prison inmates may be sent anywhere in their state. People can be jail from a few days to fifteen years. Most do not know their schedule for judgement. Prison inmates know their incarceration schedule. Jail sees a large-scale, constant churn in and out. Prison populations are comparatively stable.[10]

In addition to criminal behavior, incarceration is associated with a variety of personal and socio-economic challenges, acting alone or together. For example, about 50% of inmates in Santa Clara County have mental illness.[11] About two thirds of jail inmates report drug dependence or abuse.[12] In U.S. prisons, “people of color — who face much greater rates of poverty — are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails.”[13] America is not the only country which disproportionately incarcerates the poor and marginalized. María Belén Roca Pamich of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata writes of how incarceration degrades and fragments lives in Argentina,

Entrar en los circuitos de la justicia penal implica en Argentina verse degradado en la condición de ciudadano, ya que las desigualdades sociales se refuerzan, se fragmentan los lazos familiares, se empeora la calidad de vida, y por supuesto se interrumpen trayectorias educativas y laborales.[14]

Conversion and Salvation: One End of the Engagement Range

Tanya Erzen is an Associate Research Professor, Religion and Gender & Queer Studies at the University of Puget Sound. She is also the Faculty Director of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound which provides college classes to women in prison.[15] Erzen started teaching in prison in 2003. In God in Captivity, she describes how during the last few decades, educational and mental health services in hundreds of American prisons have come to be provided by tens of thousands of conservative evangelical nondenominational Christian volunteers.[16]

Erzen seems both to approve of the churches and faith-based groups for providing volunteer chaplains to the incarcerated, while at the same time being critical of their motives and methods. Erzen asserts, “They’ve created a theology that includes the prisoner, spurred by the Bible verse in Matthew 25:36, ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ Yet, for the volunteers, ministries and churches that go inside, the prison contains a captive population, ripe for proselytization.”[17] The theological and sociological impulse for prison ministry as described by Erzen seems at least partly to be based in what Howard Thurman calls missionary appeal,

It is not a singular thing to hear a sermon that defines what should be the attitude of the Christian toward people who are less fortunate than himself. Again and again our missionary appeal is on the basis of the Christian responsibility to the needy, the ignorant, and the so-called backward peoples of the earth. There is a certain grandeur and nobility in administering to another’s need out of one’s fullness and plenty… It is the sin of pride and arrogance that has tended to vitiate the missionary impulse and to make of it an instrument of self-righteousness on the one hand and racial superiority on the other.[18]

Erzen’s description of the growing predominance of evangelical Christian chaplains in prison is supported by Hallett and Johnson who write, “what is new is the way in which the reach and nature of religious programs have changed in prisons over the last several decades. For many, quite understandably, the term ‘prison ministry’ is synonymous with prison evangelism.”[19] Evangelical Protestantism or Evangelicalism as defined by D.W. Bebbington includes four qualities, “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.”[20] The Pew Research Center’s Religion in Prisons parallels Erzen in reporting the strong participation of evangelical Christians as chaplains, “The overwhelming majority of state prison chaplains (85%) identify themselves as Christians, and about seven-in-ten are Protestants (71%). Fully 44% of all the chaplains surveyed say their denomination is part of the evangelical Protestant tradition.”[21] Pew also reports that there are many more Protestant Christian chaplains (71%) compared to the number of Protestant Christians among prisoners (51%).[22]

Prisons and jails present complex sociological circumstances with many stakeholders who have goals that both conflict and align. Prisons welcome volunteer chaplains not only because their services are free but also, as Erzen writes, “the ministries serve as agents of surveillance and authority and make it easier to maintain order and control.”[23] Nonetheless, inmates welcome the volunteer chaplains. Erzen writes, “For a woman or man separated from children and families for years, the fellowship in religion recreates familial and kinship bonds.”[24] The bleak life circumstances of most prisoners makes them vulnerable to emotional and spiritual manipulation by other prisoners and especially by chaplains. For example, in a recent Los Angeles Times article on jail chaplaincy, Leila Miller reported, “The inmate, who is Jewish, said he attends Christian classes as an escape. ’You do anything to get out,’ he said. ‘It feels very secluded and isolated in there. Anything that inspires learning, wisdom.’”[25]

Erzen explores questions of punishment and redemption while remaining critical of faith-based ministries which, she characterizes, are largely focused on salvaging souls.[26] One ex-prisoner quoted by Erzen speaking on the evangelical Christians churches said, “Sometimes churches come in and want to save the souls. Really what they want to do is make them believe like they do, to be their kind of Christians… They’re concerned about the soul. But they’re not concerned about the person.”[27] Erzen compares the theology of the evangelical chaplains to that of American slave owners in the 19th century. She writes, “One prisoner tells me that the prison no longer has an overseer with a whip as slave plantations did, but the same kind of psychological and theological control is still present. The faith-based volunteers, teachers, and others who oversee the seminary program are now the watchers.”[28] This comparison is especially disturbing because of the strong racial and ethnic disparities among the incarcerated.

Thurman writes that missionaries feel responsible for the “backwards peoples” of the world. At one time, that phrase most often referred to outside of the West, particularly to people in Africa, Asia, and South America. Now, it seems that prisoners fill that sociological niche. Erzen writes, “Release from prison is supposed to signal a form of absolution, a pardon for the crime for which someone was convicted. However, former prisoners continue to be punished and stigmatized in myriad ways.”[29] She describes how released prisoners may be absolved in some ways but continue to be subject to long-term personal, social, and economic consequences, including limits on voting, housing, custody of children, jobs, education, travel, as well as lasting psychological impact. The evangelical chaplains described by Erzen define one end of the sociological and theological range of engagement and practices with prisoners.

Respect and Compassion: The Other End of the Range

In contrast, the more relational end of the range is represented by the work of Indiana State University English Professor Laura Bates. Her very different kind of engagement can be seen in her remarkable account of teaching in prison, Shakespeare Saved My Life. Bates is a teacher rather than a chaplain. Her stories come from teaching Shakespeare to male prison inmates as a volunteer in the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, in Carlisle, Indiana. Bates has worked with thousands of prisoners since 1983. She connects deeply with her students in a secular class focused on their intellectual enlightenment through studying Shakespeare.

By presenting stories about teaching inmates, Bates argues that empowering prisoners to study Shakespeare can be life changing, both for the students and the teacher. Bates writes, “I had come to prison to teach prisoners about Shakespeare, but I would learn from them at least as much as I would teach to them.”[30] In one of her most powerful passages, Bates writes of how her life and those of her inmate students became connected,

I had the answer to my Shakespearean research question regarding verisimilitude. I could leave prison and write the articles I needed to publish in order to apply for tenure… But then I thought about all of these people we had locked away from the world, whom I had started to know…They had no one. They seemed to need me – or, at least seemed to need Shakespeare. I realized I couldn’t leave – not now, and maybe not ever. In a way, I started to feel like I was serving a life sentence myself.[31]

Although she states her “conviction to never become emotional in prison,”[32] Laura Bates’s style of engagement might best be described as being based in respect and compassion.

As part of teaching The Taming of the Shrew, Bates facilitated a written dialogue between men and women prisoners. As part of this at-a-distance communication, incarcerated women who had been victims of domestic violence answered a series of questions from the men including, What is love? The women wrote, “Caring, respect, honesty. Listening, being there.”[33] This succinctly matches Laura Bates’s description of how she treats her inmate students and also aligns with my own experience of engagement practices that work with jail inmates. University of Chicago Professor David Bevington, after observing Bates teaching in prison, wrote in the Foreword of Shakespeare Saved My Life, “Laura was cool. She was in charge. She didn’t stand for any nonsense, but she listened, she helped, she respected.”[34]

I first learned about Shakespeare Saved My Life in a radio interview with Laura Bates in 2013.[35] My undergraduate honors thesis was on Shakespeare, so I was fascinated. The book was one of the inspirations that encouraged me in 2015 to start a college-level faith-based weekly study program inside my local county jail. Like Bates, the best practices I use in my jail ministry are based in showing prisoners respect and compassion and giving dignity in an incarceration system that rejects respect, compassion, and dignity for inmates.

My practices are intended to help the inmates grow spiritually, socially, and intellectually. They include calling inmates by their first name, giving choices whenever possible, giving opportunities for leadership, answering questions on any subject related to our study area, and regularly telling the men that they are valuable, forgivable, and loved human beings. In quarterly end-of-class feedback from my students, inmates consistently say that the single most important aspect of our program is that we mentors show up every week. If we are not locked out, we are there.

The Rev. Louann Roberts wrote when she retired after 25 years of service as the Chaplain at Elmwood Women’s Facility, that jail ministry can be addictive and life-affirming,

The best of poignant memories of all are the bright, strong and contagious faiths that encouraged and blessed me in unexpected ways. The faith, love and gratefulness found among prisoners that is freely shared with anyone who will take the time to listen, is the most addicting thing I’ve experienced in my life. I’m forever changed by the evil and the good, the contrasts where love can still win over hate, and that God is found in jail.[36]

Chaplains like Roberts who engage prisoners with respect and compassion demonstrate to them their value, both as individuals and to God. In her dissertation, Moira De Nike concludes that this recognition of worth may lead the inmate to better life outcomes, “more than faith and moral resolve are required for successful re-entry into society, but that offenders’ sense of God in their lives can be pivotal, especially as it gives them belief in their own value.”[37] When inmates understand that they have value, they may be motivated to fight harder to get a shorter prison sentence. Sawyer and Wagner report, “almost all convictions are the result of plea bargains, where defendants plead guilty to a lesser offense, possibly in a different category, or one that they did not actually commit.”[38] In my own jail ministry, I have observed that some inmates accept excessively long sentences because they do not feel they deserve better. On the other hand, I have also seen inmates get much shorter sentences when chaplains write letters for them and show up at court hearings. This is so unusual that judges pay attention.

Theology of Incarnation and Atonement

Theology is the framework in which a chaplain interacts with prisoners. It provides a context and motivation for how the chaplain values prisoners and whether prisoners are encouraged to see themselves as having a positive future. Tanya Erzen presents one end of the theological range when she writes of the beliefs of evangelical chaplains who support the role of the criminal justice system in punishing prisoners, “The idea that forgiveness or resolution only occurs as a result of punishment… has roots in Christian theology… from the Christian idea of atonement. Jesus’s death on the cross is necessary as a sacrifice to provide the only basis for sinful humans to escape deserved punishment.”[39] Erzen calls this theology a contradictory hybrid of New Testament forgiveness and Old Testament vengeance. She writes, “many nondenominational and evangelical Christians seem wedded to the idea that punishment awakens good and the biblical idea of God’s law as retribution.”[40] This theory of atonement is called penal substitution. In penal substitution, God punishes Jesus on the cross in place of sinners to satisfy the demands of justice. Penal substitution with its familiar context of judicial punishment is a popular belief among prisoners as well as evangelical chaplains.

At the other end of atonement theology is theologian-scientist Arthur Peacocke. Peacocke was an Anglican priest, Dean of Clair College, Cambridge, and a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. In Theology for a Scientific Age, Peacocke presents his interpretation of the incarnated Jesus growing the upper limit of human potential when he writes, “we have come to see Jesus the Christ… as the distinctive manifestation of a possibility always inherently there for human beings in their potential nature, that is, by virtue of what God had created them to be and to become.”[41] Peacocke criticizes the penal substitution theory of atonement because it suffers from both the moral defect of God inflicting punishment on the innocent as well as the blasphemy of putting God in the role of a hanging judge seeking retribution.[42] Peacocke offers an alternate atonement interpretation in which Jesus represents a new upward possibility for human realization, “the life, suffering and death of Jesus the Christ as an act of love… an act of love of God.”[43] Peacocke’s love-based theology affirms continuing spiritual growth and human value growing in parallel with the physical evolution of humans. In his view, theories like penal substitution fail to support the ongoing transformation of humanity into what God intends.[44] Chaplains like Roberts who act out of a theology of love and belief in growth potential show respect and compassion for the inmate as a person, not just as a soul to be saved.

Better Outcomes and Lower Recidivism

There is a great deal of information about recidivism (that is, ex-inmates repeating criminal behavior, or being re-arrested), all of it complex and potentially conflicting. For example, the Bureau of Justice reports a 68% recidivism rate within three years, and 83% within nine years.[45] However, Gelb and Velazquez, citing data from the aforesaid Bureau of Justice, report that the numbers returning to state prison within three years have dropped.[46] What seems true in any case is the summary by Michael Hallett, Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice, University of North Florida, “Rebuilding the lives of ex-offenders has proven exceedingly difficult.”[47]

A review of published reports indicates that certain kinds of programs do help those in re-entry to stay out of incarceration. Many of these are faith-based programs that offer study groups, mentors, support for housing, jobs, transportation, training, life skills, reconnection with family, and healthcare, including substance abuse treatment. Faith-based programs can reduce recidivism but Hallett cautions, “most faith-based programs do not last very long… prisoners need a more substantial or sustained faith-based intervention to be effective.”[48] The Pew Research Center interviewed prison chaplains who advocated for ongoing support during re-entry, “78% say they consider support from religious groups after inmates are released from prison to be absolutely critical to inmates’ successful rehabilitation and re-entry into society.”[49]

One such program with a long-term focus is called Stepping Stones Gathering, started a year ago by my home parish, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, in partnership with Grace Baptist Church. Each Sunday morning, about thirty jail volunteers, men in re-entry, family, and friends meet to worship, celebrate our accomplishments, and seek help with our challenges. Some of the men have been in our community (inside and out) since 2015. Stepping Stones is developing into a successful long-term re-entry program and I am proud to be a part of it.[50]

According to Hallett, systemic objective research into the effectiveness of faith-based programs has been limited.[51] This will be an area I study more completely in my fully-developed Master’s thesis. I suspect that because faith-based programs are offered at no cost they are less studied than are programs paid for by taxes. In addition, it is hard to study formally the many faith-based programs for prisoners because there are fewer non-faith-based programs with which to compare them. As Erzen writes, “The reality is that the alternative to a religious group is often nothing at all.”[52] Nonetheless, Hallett concludes, “Successful desisters [ex-prisoners who stay out of incarceration] frequently report that religiosity provides a spiritual fortitude useful for a path for longer-term desistance.”[53] That is, faith-based programs give those in re-entry much-needed strength to go on.


I have proposed a range of chaplain engagement with prisoners. One endpoint of the range is based in a missionary or evangelical theology centered around conversion, salvation, and a belief that prisoners deserve punishment and a low place in society. The other end of the range reflects a more relational outlook with emphasis on respect, compassion, and a longer-term focus improving the circumstances of inmates and those in re-entry to society. Both provide benefit to a marginalized group, but the sustained, relational engagement seems to be tied to better outcomes and lower recidivism. Understanding the range of prisoner engagement can be beneficial in any case.


[1] Tanya Erzen, God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017).

[2] Laura Bates, Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, a Memoir (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2013).

[3] Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming – Natural, Divine, and Human (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[4] US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2017, by Jennifer Bronson and Ann Carson, NCJ 252156 (April 2019): 368% report, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p17.pdf.

[5] Stephanie C. Boddie and Cary Funk, Religion in Prisons: A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 22 March 2012): 23, https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2012/03/Religion-in-Prisons.pdf.

[6] US Department of Justice, Prisoners in 2017, 3.

[7] Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, Mass Incarceration: the Whole Pie 2019 (Easthampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 9 March 2019): 1-3, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html.

[8] Trends in US Corrections (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2019), https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/trends-in-u-s-corrections/.

[9] US Department of Justice, Prisoners in 2017, 3.

[10] Sawyer and Wagner, Mass Incarceration, 4-7.

[11] Maryann Barry, “Augmentation of Behavioral Health Services to Inmates in County Jail,” County of Santa Clara: Santa Clara Valley Health & Hospital System, 15 December 2015, https://www.sccgov.org/sites/scc/Documents/Item19-79301A-Board-of-Supervisors-Meeting-2015-12-15.pdf.

[12] Wendy Sawyer, BJS Report: Drug Abuse and Addiction at the Root of 21% of Crimes (Easthampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 28 June 2017), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/06/28/drugs/.

[13] Sawyer and Wagner, Mass Incarceration, 19.

[14] Maria Belen Roca Pamich, “Sociología general en cárceles: sistematización de la experiencia educativa en contexto de encierro,” [General sociology in prisons: systematization of educational experience in confinement context] Cuestiones de Sociología 19, no. 068 (December 2018), https://www.cuestionessociologia.fahce.unlp.edu.ar/article/view/CSe068/10356.

[15] “Tanya Erzen,” University of Puget Sound, accessed 6 Dec 2019, https://www.pugetsound.edu/faculty-pages/terzen/.

[16] Erzen, 5.

[17] Erzen, 14.

[18] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1949), 12-13.

[19] Michael Hallett and Byron Johnson, “The Resurgence of Religion in America’s Prisons,” Religions 5 (2014): 670, https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/5/3/663/htm.

[20] D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1989), 2.

[21] Boddie and Funk, 27.

[22] Boddie and Funk, 23.

[23] Erzen, 11.

[24] Erzen, 14.

[25] Leila Miller, “When Jail Chaplains are Volunteers, Some Faiths are More Present than Others.” Los Angeles Times, 2 Nov 2019. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-11-02/la-me-inmate-chaplain-requests.

[26] Erzen, 15.

[27] Erzen, 80.

[28] Erzen, 63.

[29] Erzen, 115.

[30] Bates, 37.

[31] Bates, 78.

[32] Bates, 209.

[33] Bates, 247.

[34] Bates, viii.

[35] “Teaching Shakespeare in a Maximum Security Prison,” hosted by Michel Martin, Tell Me More, on NPR, 22 April 2013, https://www.npr.org/2013/04/22/178411754/teaching-shakespeare-in-a-maximum-security-prison.

[36] Louann Roberts, “Praying with My Eyes Open,” CICMinistries.org, Correctional Institutions Chaplaincy, 2016, https://sites.google.com/cicministries.org/welcome/our-stories/praying-with-my-eyes-open.

[37] Moira De Nike, “The Penitent: The Myths and Realities of Religious Rehabilitation Among California Prisoners” (PhD diss., University of Hawaii, 2005), iv, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing (10838887).

[38] Sawyer and Wagner, 14.

[39] Erzen, 116.

[40] Erzen, 115-117.

[41] Peacocke, 302.

[42] Peacocke, 324.

[43] Peacocke, 328.

[44] Peacocke, 327.

[45] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014), by Mariel Alper, Matthew R. Durose and Joshua Markman, NCJ 250975 (May 2018), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/18upr9yfup0514.pdf.

[46] Adam Gelb and Tracy Velazquez. The Changing State of Recidivism: Fewer People Going Back to Prison (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 1 Aug 2018), https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/08/01/the-changing-state-of-recidivism-fewer-people-going-back-to-prison.

[47] Hallett and Johnson, 677.

[48] Hallett, 674.

[49] Boddie and Funk, 11.

[50] “Stepping Stone Gathering: Supporting & Celebrating Reentry & Recovery,” HelpingOut (blog), 3 November 2018, https://helpingout.net/2018/11/03/stepping-stone-gathering-supporting-celebrating-reentry-recovery/.

[51] Hallett, 675-676.

[52] Erzen, 163.

[53] Hallett, 677-678.



Jail and Prison Chaplain – Range of Engagement, Practices, Copyright Katy Dickinson 2019

Copyright Ⓒ 2019 by Katy Dickinson
Citadel of Qaitbay window, Alexandria, Egypt – Image Copyright Ⓒ 2018 by Katy Dickinson.

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