Faith, education, and healing
By KAIA STERN
First published by Routledge in 2014, “Voices from American Prisons” by Dr. Kaia Stern is highly relevant for scholars, criminologists, social activists and anybody impacted by the “criminal justice system.” Dr. Stern is the Director of the Harvard Prison Studies Project and a visiting professor at Harvard University. She has been a student and teacher inside U.S. prisons for the past 25 years. She holds a doctorate in religion from Emory University and a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.
In “Voices from American Prisons,” the interfaith minister analyzes the history of U.S. prisons and the crisis of mass incarceration through the lens of six men who participated in the Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in Ministry Program inside New York’s Sing Sing prison.
Dr. Stern uses the testimony of these formerly incarcerated men to demonstrate the transformative nature of education and how fundamental it is to helping solve the crisis of mass incarceration.
In the first two chapters, Stern powerfully illustrates the historical influence that religion has had on invoking what she refers to as “a spirit of punishment.” She shows how certain religious ideologies have cast people as essentially corrupt, evil, defective and inhuman. She points to biblical teachings, like the story of Adam and Eve and “Man’s fall from grace” as fostering specific notions of sin, evil and otherness. These ideologies have helped feed the conditions for “legitimate outpourings of state violence” says Stern. It has fueled political narratives like “Lock them up and throw away the key.”
The connections Dr. Stern draws between religion and our crisis-ridden penal system are compelling. She doesn’t condemn religion, but instead unveils its counterintuitive destructiveness in shaping a prison system based on dehumanization, isolation and social death.
Dr. Stern vividly details how prisons that rely on a spirit of punishment don’t reform, but deform people. She suggests that to understand the theological roots of punishment in prisons, one must see how prison promotes the unhealthy idea that people are beyond redemption.
Using the analogy of Erving Goffman’s effects of a total institution, Stern poignantly connects her readers to the ways in which prisons desensitize people and make them accustomed to abnormal living conditions through “conformity and brutality.” She demonstrates how people in prison lose their identity, separateness and bodily autonomy, often resulting in state sanctioned sexual assaults and loss of human privacy. Dr. Stern indicts prison as a place that outlaws human emotions, contact, love and concern for others. It’s a place that helps drive people into isolation from family, friends and community.
What is most miraculous about Stern’s book is it shows how the six men who graduated from the MPS program were able to be transformed despite the nature of prisons. These men were able to overcome prison through the MPS program. Stern describes the MPS model as “transformative—emancipatory—and as a theological education” that uses a combination of the study of ethics, sacred texts and religious history, with ministry in the immediate prison community.
Students of MPS make a pledge to seek the “Shalom” and to live “emancipatory praxis” and create community. Here, Stern defines “praxis” as the process of reflection and action by which we move toward critical consciousness. She defines “emancipatory” as a process of education and theological consciousness. This practice provided the engine for cultivation and awakening under the guidance of MPS founder Bill Webber.
The men in the program were able to engage in quiet introspection and congregate as a community to practice their counseling and humanity in a prison.
As a result of the MPS program, these men became pastors and “wounded healers’ in prison and beyond.
What is most persuasive about Stern’s argument is the way she highlights the capacity for human resilience and transformation in even the worst of conditions. By using these men’s stories, Dr. Stern is able to drive home her point: that prisons are out of touch, and that transformative education is needed to address the current crisis within what Dr. Stern calls our “criminal punishment system.”