Mass Incarceration: Does it concern the GA Black Church?

Often times, there is this belief that there is not much overlap between the Christian Church and Prison. Despite many of the church’s teachings aligning with the ideals of social justice, many individuals see it as a form of Divine Intervention when an individual is placed in the incarceration system. In Darrin Sims’ “The Cross and The Criminal Record”, he highlights first the story of Barabbas and his connection to Christ, as well as how much of what society knows of his story ends once he is released. In this same way, our own society has our own Barabbas’. We too have people who have been released from Prison and have stories that have gone cold. It is easy to shift blame onto others instead of finding and creating solutions. This blog post will focus on the Black Church community in Atlanta and the ways in which they may have overlooked incarcerated peoples, whether there are measures put in place to help someone during and out of the system, and how the current religious leaders have been involved in the fight against incarceration .

In Georgia, according to the findings of PrisonPolicy.Org currently there are 102,000 people incarcerated. Out that number, 54,000 are in State Prisons, 39,000 are in Local Jails, and 7,900 people are in Federal Prisons. In addition to these already large number, 1,100 people are in Youth Detention centers and 400 are in involuntary commitment. As a state, Georgia has one of the highest prison populations, with many of those incarcerated being men of color. To take it even a step further, in the state of Georgia, you begin being tried as an adult at the age of 17. This alone widens the net of incarceration and leaves more bodies susceptible to the capitalistic scheme that is known as our prison system. These numbers, as well as what is known as racial climate of our society proof for Georgia’s incarceration problem and who better to help address larger social conflicts than the Black Church.

Pie Chart from Prison Policy. Org created in December 2018 by Alexi Jones

Many people do not know this, but I am the daughter of a Pastor and my family is very religious. Much of my moral compass is encompassed in what I was taught in Church, as well as what I have interpreted in the Bible. With that being said, I was excited to work alongside Darren Sims and learn more about Georgia Justice Project. One thing that really drew me to Mr. Sims was the way he was able to marry his religious upbringing with the public facing work he was doing. Mr. Sims is from Ferguson, Missouri and it was the slaying of Mike Brown that really got him into his current line of work. Mr. Sims was in  a search for answers to why these social injustices were occuring, thus found himself in seminary school, namely Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GA. While in Atlanta, what shocked him was seeing just how many young Black bodies were a part of the prison system. This disheartening reality for many truly fueled Mr. Sims’ fire and prompted him to get more involved in eradicating the current model for prison, wherein his  focus was the post prison reality. That is also how we arrive at the Georgia Justice Project.

The Georgia Justice Project, or GJP, is a nonprofit and non partisan organization focused on prison support. They offer wraparound services such as job assistance services, social workers, childcare, and expungement services. What makes GJP very unique is the fact that they are the only organization in Georgia working on record expungements. Through this organization, people are truly given a second chance. One might even call it redemption, which is an idea ever present  in Christian theology. GJP works with people to and through the prison system, and have even worked to pass bills such as Senate Bill 288, which is an Expungement Bill, and Senate Bill 105, which reduced the number of Georgian’s serving lengthy probation sentences. GJP  and Mr Sims have made huge strides in  in the fight against Mass Incarceration and specifically looking at Mr. Sims, he was able to bring together his activism and faith to create change. With that being said, I do wonder why the same cannot be said for the majority of Black Churches in GA.

While doing research for this blog post, it was disheartening to learn that despite a vast majority of those incarcerated being Black men, there is not a larger outcry from churches and their leaders. It was incredibly hard to find resources that churches had, as well as find Black pastors within Geogia who were actively doing public facing work. The Black Church has been crucial to Black culture and the idea of hope.  In the height of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the overall fight for Black Liberation, it was the church that brought people a form of solace and it was leaders such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who stepped up and led efforts The same way Mr.Sims is able to marry his faith with his activism, I wish I could see more of the work within the church community in Georgia. Currently one person leading the efforts and stirring up conversation around the issue is Senator Rev. Raphael G. Warnock , Senior Pastor of the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Continuing the legacy of MLK Jr., Rev. Warncok has held conversations centering around mass incarceration, and during his 2019 discussion at Harvard Memorial Church he shared his belief that Mass Incarceration is currently the most pressing civil rights issue and addressing the way the system targets men of color is a “moral imperative” (Walsh ,Harvard Gazette). As a pastor, activist, and now Senator, Warnock has been able to use his intersectional identities to his advantage in the fight against mass incarceration and has even criticisized  follow leaders for not taking a more prominent role in activist efforts. When asked about the role of the church in terms of social justice, as well as his thoughts on his counterparts, in a 2019 article from The Atlanta Journal -Constitution he said “ ‘The problem is that ministers in most American pulpits have been silent on issues of justice, relegating such concerns to the realm of politics,’ he said.” (Staples, AJC). Often, church leaders stay away from  social justice efforts because of this belief that faith can not be mixed with politics, which is odd because many political leaders are people of faith themselves. This absolves the leaders and their churches from an issue that affects them, as well as negates the many interpretations of Christianity as being a religion of liberation and redeeming the social pariah. Warnock was aware of this and continued to say,  “It’s a truncated logic that says these are social issues and ministers are to deal with issues of faith. The Bible clearly says otherwise.’ ” (Staples, AJC). Theologically, pastors hold a certain responsibility to their parishioners. While they are primarily expected to be in charge of the salvation and help lead people on the right path, there will be times where their members will need their help on issues outside of church. Part of the human experience is understanding that mistakes will be made and as an individual tasked with ensuring that mankind takes the right path but also supporting them through faith, the issue of mass incarceration is definitely one that concerns pastors.

Thinking specifically about the Black Church in Georgia, the fact that more leaders are not speaking out about mass incarceration, or providing resources for incarcerated individuals is concerning. Georgia, with it rich culture and history, is home to the third largest population of Black people in America. In that same breath, it is Black people who are filling up these prisons in Georgia. If the Black Church is primarily focused on serving and helping the Black community, then for some leaders to not speak up on the issue is a violation to the promises they made. Even if their own members are not incarcerated, given the numbers and statistics surrounding mass incarceration, at least one member is in some way affected, thus given their obligation to said infected member, the issue now has a connection to them. Basically, there is no real way that leaders of Black churches can escape the responsibility they have to ending mass incarceration. While I did chastise Black Church leaders for not using their voice as much as they could, I will acknowledge that this is not the case for all churches in Georgia. I was able to find the organization Ending Mass Incarceration, which is an organization that helps faith leaders to tap into their agency in the fight of mass incarceration. Their website provides resources for things such as the school to prison pipelines, the process of expungement and more. As I scrolled down the website, I was pleased to see multiple groups such as Ebenezer Baptist Church, The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and more involved with this organization. This let me know that there are efforts being made on the end of religious leaders to enact change.

While some work is being done by the Black Church in Georgia to adresss mass incarceration, not enough is being done. The mere fact that I was able to find concrete programs in churches outside of Ebenezer means that bot enough is being done to help solve the issue that affects all of us. Moving forward, I would want pastors to see the roles they play in grander society, in addition to the duties they have to their parishioners.

Intersectionality and Freedom: How Individuals can Solve the Issue of Mass Incarceration

Audre Lorde in her “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” details her reaction to a conference supposed to be about feminism that did not discuss issues of race, gender, and homophobia which are all inseparable in the context of America. Lorde discusses the necessity of community organization because though women are taught to ignore differences, coming together is the way people are able to make changes in the world. Yet, unfortunately, those who do not fit the identities of being a white feminine woman “know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde). Lorde argues that studies cannot be labeled feminist unless they are intersectional, because, in our multi-issued America, people’s identities must be considered not categorically but understood holistically. 

Perhaps the best example of this kind of politics is the one coined by the Combahee River Collective which recognized that “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” (Taylor). Black women often endure the worst forms of oppression in the world because of the racism, classism, and sexism that plagues America. But knowing the reality of Black women and trying to make changes in the world is difficult. Even narrowing in on the issue of mass incarceration and women is overwhelming because so many people are affected by the cruel system. We are often confronted with the jarring statistics; Georgia incarcerates 968 people per 100,000 people, (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities) meaning Georgia incarcerates the highest percentage of people in any democracy in the world. And, when discussing the issue of mass incarceration, people are often polarized, with some favoring prison abolition, and others promoting prison reform. Though intersectionality, identity politics, and mass incarceration are all important areas of study, in addition to trying to conceptualize how to change the systems in place, I often wonder what individuals can do to solve issues of incarceration, when it often seems that the problem is too large to solve. 

Historically, Black women have been disadvantaged in America. According to Virginia Slave Laws, children would be considered slaves or free based on the status of their mother (Gross 37). Since the early years of American history, women were sexually exploited based on the language of the laws which were created. The rape of the Black woman was unprotected by the law, proving that Black women were often objectified for the White male, but often not dignified as human being. In addition, the Virginia legislature categorized Black women with men, labeling them “as field laborers with a productive capacity equivalent to that of men” (Gross 27). So, in terms of using Black women’s bodies for the male’s sexual pleasure, they were seen as female, but in terms of increasing the wealth of the White plantation owner, Black women were viewed as machines who could produce the same amount as men. This dichotomy describes the inconsistency of stereotyping Black women as sexual objects at some times, but masculine machines at others. And, by law, women were vulnerable. Celia, an enslaved woman, was executed when she killed her rapist-owner in 1885 Missouri, proving that “black women would be denied protection under the law, only to be fatally condemned by it” (Gross 27). When women tried to retaliate to preserve their dignity, the White man was protected by the law, despite their sins. In allegedly Christian America, Black women were often treated as non-human, even though God creates all humans and believes they are good (DeNeen).

With the undeniable prevalence of oppression on Black bodies in America, it is important considering this history in the context of mass incarceration today. When discussing the carceral state, scholars often like to align themselves with either prison abolition, or prison reform. On the side of prison abolition, people believe prisons should not exist at all. Organizations such as No New Jails believe in reinvesting money spent on incarcerating people into Black and Brown communities who have been disproportionately affected by incarceration and over-policing. They believe that “A cage is a cage” and therefore a “better jail” cannot exist, for they inherently are inhumane and restrict people from living freely. But, what is often contrasted from abolition is prison reform. At times, this can be religiously motivated, such as Christians trying to use their religion to lead people to not sin against God or others in order to decrease recidivism and restoration after a person is incarcerated. Prison could be seen as a form of penitence, but at the same time, prison reform doesn’t have to be this religious. Generally speaking, prison reform understands that prisons can help some people and therefore aims to make the carceral state more humane and dignifying. 

Considering that Black women have to endure atrocious treatment historically and presently in conjunction with the debate of abolition or reform, the issue of mass incarceration is often overwhelming. It is often difficult for individuals to consider how they can make a difference in the world when the systems of oppression seem so unfixable on the individual scale. Still, one example of someone who is doing great community work is Pamela Winn. In her younger years, she obtained a degree in biology from Spelman College, three post-secondary degrees in nursing, and worked for 10 years as a Registered Nurse before she served a 78-month federal sentence for a white-collar crime while pregnant. In her time incarcerated, she fell while shackled which eventually led her to miscarry. Afterward, she was put into solitary confinement. Still, she didn’t allow her circumstances to shape her future; she dreamed of a better future for other women.

Pamela Winn

Pamela Winn is the founder of Restore HER US. America, a policy advocacy reentry organization that is dedicated to improving the lives of women who are directly impacted by mass incarceration. RestoreHER also partners with other organizations that hope to end the system altogether. In the past, Ms. Winn has used her personal story and experience to shape her work; she was able to pass anti-shackling legislation in 15 states, focusing on Southern America. In addition, she worked with women who endured shackling while incarcerated to develop a Bill of Rights for Incarcerated Pregnant People. 

Currently, Ms. Winn is working on the Women’s CARE act (Georgia’s HB377), which seeks to give women more humane treatment while incarcerated. The CARE act stands for “Childcare Alternatives, Resources, and Education,” and desires to fulfill 3 primary objectives:

  1. Administer pregnancy tests to arrested women after 72 hours to confirm their pregnancies and allow them to be released on bond. 
  2. Defer serving prison time until 12 weeks postpartum.
  3. Collect thorough and accurate data on pregnant women behind bars to better serve them in the future.

Working with Chairwoman Sharon Cooper (R-43) and Kim Schofield (D-60), the HB 377 seeks to give pregnant women a chance to have a dignifying life by providing them a way to nurture their children, with countless studies proving the value of this experience and connection between a mother and child. In addition, this early nurturance of children can assist them with developing into healthy people, as studies prove that oftentimes separation from mothers has led to children possessing aggressive tendencies. 

Essentially, for the sake of mothers and children, it is advantageous for the Women’s CARE Act to pass. With inadequate medical care in prisons, it is clear that more miscarriages can occur similar to the way Ms. Winn had to endure. For this reason, it was one step for her to pass anti-shackling legislation, but this cannot be the end. Women need adequate care during their pregnancies so that they can raise healthy children. And, in order to maintain good health for the mothers postpartum, and for the development of children, the CARE Act is necessary for helping people who did no wrong mature into healthy kids in their first three months of life.

Pamela Winn is just one example of the kinds of things individuals can achieve to make strides towards better futures. She is able to use her intersectional identities as a Black woman and her experience while incarcerated in order to advocate for other women who are affected by the carceral system. This is how people are able to dismantle the master’s house; they use their experiences to find injustices in the world in order to prevent it from repeating in the lives of others. Though mass incarceration is a weighty topic and can constitute a lot of things, the story of Ms. Winn can help people understand that anyone can make a difference. Ms. Winn has no formal political training, and formerly was a registered nurse but was still able to advocate for herself and others in order to pass important legislation. 

Undeniably, Black women have endured much suffering in the United States and will continue to do so unless we make changes. We can study the issues that are important to us, such as freedom, incarceration, intersectionality, and more, but our work cannot stop there. It is not enough to simply reflect on these issues, but try to work to dismantle the systems that oppress people, using our identities, like Ms. Winn, to solve the issues of mass incarceration. As individuals, we can only do our best to make a better future if we are intentional with our actions. In order to see changes in the world, we as individuals can overturn systems that have been oppressing too many for too long, so long as we lean into discomfort in order to see meaningful progress for the future.

Works Cited

DeNeen L. Brown, “Missouri v. Celia, a Slave: She killed the white master raping her, then claimed self-defense,” Washington Post, October 19, 2017. “

Georgia Profile,” Prison Policy Initiative, accessed November 29, 2021,

Goldberg, Noah. “Who is No New Jails?” Brooklyn Eagle, May 14, 2019, 

Gross, Kali Nicole. “African American Women, Mass Incarceration, and the Politics of Protection.” The Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (2015): 25–33.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.

McGrath, Maggie. “The Age of Impact: Meet the Women over 50 Creating Social Change at Scale,” Forbes, Jul. 7, 2021, ​​

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. How We Get Free, Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2017.

Winn, Pamela and Cook, Abigail. “How Georgia’s Women’s CARE Act Addresses Incarcerated Pregnant People.” Ms. Magazine, March 3, 2021. 

The Good Fight: How the GJP Is Working Towards Criminal Justice Reform

Georgia has a long history of having an unusually punishing carceral system. While much reform has happened over the years, there are barriers and restrictions facing thousands of incarcerated – and previously incarcerated – people. Voting is difficult to navigate with a criminal record; housing is near inaccessible; jobs, safety, security and adjusting to a life after prison is an uphill battle. Even during the beginning of the pandemic, when safety and outside contact became even more dire, all visitations in Georgia prisons were suspended in March 2020 – legal visits included. They were only reinstated over a year later, in April 2021. Criminal justice reform, while groundbreaking, has also been recent. Only in 2014, was it prohibited from law enforcement to publish mugshots online; in 2015 Ban the Box was signed into law; and in 2020 record expungement began at the government level. This is the challenging environment that activists must navigate and do work in.

This is where the Georgia Justice Project (GJP) comes in. Its mission, in its own words, is “[strengthening] our community by demonstrating a better way to represent and support individuals in the criminal justice system and reduce barriers to reentry.” This translates into concrete actions of “direct legal representation, policy advocacy, education and coalition building.” Over the past 30 years, the organization has boasted a stellar track record of aid, support and outreach.


GJP does not do easy work. It directly aids an inadequately serviced, targeted and marginalized community while also navigating structures that do not exist to bolster these communities. The care and support they provide are also often costly, a fact made more clear by GJP’s free services. Genuine care and support do not always translate to profit, longevity, legislative success, or popularity. But against a stacked deck in a historically hostile state, they have achieved it all. Why have they been able to see such tangible success? For one, they coalition build well and embrace help from all across the political spectrum. They work with organizations all across the state, changing what they can through collective action. They count among their corporate partners for 2021 UPS, King and Spalding, Delta, The Home Depot, Georgia-Pacific, Microsoft and Dentons. In just the past few years they have passed multiple landmark criminal reform laws dealing with expungement, sealing records, and allowing easier access to housing and jobs. SB 105, passed just this May, gives early termination of probation for incarcerated people after 3 years if they reach milestones. They did not draft it or advocate for it alone. When passing it in the Senate and House, they were backed up by a Republican-led government that still wanted to see them succeed. Many groups align and aid in the work they do, including the REFORM coalition, American Conservative Union Foundation, and RestoreHer. Working alone makes an already challenging fight even more so, and GJP is more than aware of this.

Another reason is their holistic approach to helping people who have made contact with the prison industrial complex. When taking on a new client, the GJP do not simply give them a pro bono lawyer – it pairs them with a social worker. This means a more holistic type of care, one that goes beyond legal representation. For example, in the case of JT, social workers helped him enroll in his probation program, find housing, and connect him to GED programs. This not only acknowledges people as clients, but affirms their humanity. It also recognizes crime as something that does not happen in a bubble, nor a moral failing. People who come into contact with the prison industrial complex are struggling in other areas of their lives – addiction, poverty, a lack of community, and so on. Pairing people with social workers also means a more longer, deep connection with a support system. Clients and lawyers may terminate their relationships after court cases are won, but this may not be enough to sustain the well being of incarcerated – even formerly – people.

In fact, GJP talks proudly of long-term connections to former clients who continue to stay in touch well after they require the organization’s help. “Over the next 30 years, we wrote, visited and sent [WJ] packages allowed by the Department of Corrections. We helped provide transport for his family to see him in prison so he could stay connected to them and we included his family in our Back to School and Holiday events.” is just one example of a long standing and close knit bond GJP has established with clients. Another client, David, has had a 20-year connection to GJP that has seen him go from a client to a member of the organization’s Community Advisory Group. This was largely due to GJP’s sustained and continued reach to the community – the article mentions the organization hosting dinners, holiday events, and picnics. Informal events are crucial to community and welcoming, which has proven to be beneficial to many.


Another unique aspect of care that GJP provides is that it is grounded in spirituality. As executive director Douglas Ammar says in Transforming Justice, Lawyers and the Practice of Law: “We are using the law as a beginning, as a tool, but the fulfillment is community, acceptance, and love. Justice might be the beginning of our journey with clients, but it is love and acceptance that complete it” (54). As he describes it, there is something deeply spiritual in doing work for and with people “who have often broken the law, who are poor, who are shunned by others in society—[that] goes beyond justice” (62). While other organizations may seek to be strictly secular, Ammar openly embraces a more multifaceted approach. “Spirituality…asks different questions of power…How are those with power treating those without power? Is power being used to serve those without it, or are those with power fiercely protecting it and using it for their own personal advancement?” (55). And these are more than question that personally compel him – they are built into the approach that GJP takes. This holistic care and support is the most significant reason the organization is able to connect and support so well with the folks they work with.

“Is Anyone Worthless?” asks Dortell Williams, the title of his deeply moving essay published in Honor Comes Hard: Writings From the California Prison System’s Honor Yard. His conclusion? People make mistakes, but can be helped. Nobody is worthless. This is echoed in Ammar’s own words: “The system is broken. Individuals make bad decisions” (86). Within a flawed system, so many people are dehumanized and stripped of everything they are. And people make mistakes. Both are true, and the GJP will continue to fight with any and all the tools they have.

Works Cited

Silver, Marjorie A. Transforming Justice, Lawyers and the Practice of Law. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 2017.

Honor Comes Hard: Writings from the California Prison System’s Honor Yard. United States, Tia Chucha Press, 2009.

EDUCATION AS PRISON ABOLITION: a conversation with my formerly incarcerated father

This year, I had the opportunity to take a class entitled “Prison, Religion, and Social Justice,” as a second year at Emory University. As the child of a formerly incarcerated individual, I have had the special opportunity throughout the course of calling my dad and hearing his opinions and thoughts on different topics from class, always framed by his lived experience with the carceral system. This blog draws upon outside academic sources to give a broad picture of mass incarceration in our current landscape, but weaves throughout these academic sources a conversation I had with my dad about his relationship with the carceral system and the American educational system. 

My dad, Josh Gordon, is the son of two school teachers, born and raised in rural South Georgia. He started working with cars at the age of 14, and by his sophomore year of highschool had two separate jobs building motors at a factory and working as a mechanic at a local shop in town. Despite having educators as parents, school was never his priority, and secondary education was never presented to him as necessary, or even a tool that could improve his life. He’d been, like so many students in the American education system, funnelled into a track in school that set him up for a working class, skills based occupation, and didn’t emphasize secondary education. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this path, but he does express regret at the fact that he wasn’t encouraged by teachers or guidance counsellors to pursue secondary education in addition to his education as a mechanic.

me with my Dad earlier this year at his home in North Georgia

One aspect of this class was partnering with a member of the Atlanta community working towards justice reform within the prison system in some aspect. I was put into a group partnering with Patrick Rodriguez, who was formerly incarcerated, and whose work focuses primarily on increasing access to secondary education for formerly incarcerated and incarcerated folks. Patrick serves as the campaign manager for Beyond the Box, an organization with the primary goal of removing the “box” requiring applicants to indicate whether or not they have been incarcerated in the past. Oftentimes, checking this box can result in applications being rejected, or at the very least creates greater obstacles for formerly incarcerated people who are seeking secondary education. This idea of moving beyond the box, and examining applications based on a wholistic evaluation of a person rather than allowing past actions to dictate an individual’s future is a key part of humanizing those affected by the carceral system and shifting societal views of what a “criminal” and their lives looks like. 

It wasn’t until I met Patrick Rodriguez and learned about the work he is doing with Beyond the Box that I realized just how significant a role education plays in mass incarceration, and I began discussing this more with my dad. Data shows that of the 5+ million formerly incarcerated individuals living in the United States, less than 5% have a college degree. In a study conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative, it was found that those who have faced incarceration are “twice as likely to have no high school credential at all,” in comparison to the general public. A report published by the US Department of Education revealed that “inside our prisons, 19% of adult inmates are illiterate, and up to 60% are functionally illiterate,” compared to 4% and 23% respectively, in the general population.

Graph from Prison Policy Initiative showing differences in educational background amongst the general public vs. formerly incarcerated individuals

These numbers should serve as more than simply shocking statistics; they should be clear signals to us that our education system as it is currently funded and conducted is failing. And when our education fails us, it has real world impacts. To put it simply, in the words of my dad, “The people that go to college are not the people that go to jail, generally speaking. And the people that go to jail are not the people that go to college.” When I asked him if he thought a secondary degree would have prevented his incarceration, my dad answered decisively: “Yes, absolutely. If I would’ve chosen that, No. I would not have gone to jail. Education leads to making better choices and doing better things. You’re around a different set of people, entirely. And if you are not pursuing education, whatever that looks like for you, you will not have access to the same people and choices. You’re set apart on a totally different path.”

There is a major disconnect between those who have access to higher education and those who are affected by the carceral system, and the data shows us this time and time again. We cannot ignore the impact that education, and the lack of funding for quality education, plays in America’s mass incarceration problem. This brings us to the phenomena which has been coined the “school to prison pipeline.” In an article by the Prison Policy Initiative, the school to prison pipeline is described as “punitive practices in schools and neighborhoods that funnel [students] out of school and into juvenile and criminal justice system involvement.” While this description focuses primarily on systems of punishment within school, it can be argued that a large part of this trend is a result of underfunding and lack of resources, particularly for marginalized students who are already facing higher rates of policing and greater risk of incarceration. An NAACP report, “Misplaced Priorities,” investigating the ties between education and mass incarceration shows that “while funding for higher education between 1987 and 2007 grew by just 21 percent, corrections funding grew by 127 percent.” When we acknowledge the evidence earlier pointing towards a lack of education leading to incarceration, paired with this trend of a lack of investment in education, and yet a massive increase in corrections funding, it is not surprising that incarceration rates have only steadily increased in the past decades. 

What could an alternative future look like? Imagine if those statistics were reversed, and rather than investing funds into increasing the span of the carceral system, funds were redirected towards education. What if instead of building new prisons, we saw the state investing in public schools: building new STEM facilities for students in low income areas, providing greater access to after school care and activities so that parents could work without worrying about their children’s safety, even things as simple as providing new textbooks and other creative learning resources for teachers. What if we invested in our public school teachers so that they can invest in our children? This future is not unattainable.

This is the future of prison abolition. Prison abolition can feel like a scary idea that feels unrealistic and unachievable. But I think framing it in the context of divestment and redirecting funds towards greater access to education is one of the ways that abolitionists and advocates of prison reform can make the process feel more realistic and achievable, and less daunting to the general public. The idea that education is a powerful, and overwhelmingly positive, tool is not a controversial one. When I initially discussed prison abolition with my dad, even as someone who has been directly impacted negatively by the system, he was hesitant to voice support for a complete eradication of the prison system. However, almost immediately after I framed abolition as a transition taking place through divestment from prisons and reinvestment in community care, such as education, his perspective changed. The language of care stuck out to him, and he explained to me his basic philosophy on education as a tool to reduce incarceration: “In America, we’re raising people who are uneducated, with just enough resources to cause danger, but not enough to take care of themselves. It’s human nature… we’re gonna take care of ourselves to the best of our ability. And the more educated we are, the better we can do that, generally, as a rule. The better decisions you’re gonna make.” This idea of “crime” as a direct result of our need to take care of ourselves and our loved ones being at odds with a lack of resources and education to do so is a key shift in perspective for abolitionists. Education then becomes not only a tool to prevent and initiate the end of mass incarceration, but also a healing tool that provides a hope for a more just future.

We’re gonna take care of ourselves to the best of our ability. And the more educated we are, the better we can do that…

Josh Gordon

This idea of using concepts of healing and community care to frame abolition is not a new one. Abolitionists such as Mariame Kaba and the Black, queer led abolitionist group Harriet’s Apothecary both envision futures where justice is an act of community care, and emphasize the fact that prison abolition goes beyond tearing down physical buildings, or removing systemic practices. It is about relearning how to care for each other in a just and fair way. In my dad’s case, his vision for community care begins with education, and giving people the resources necessary to know how to take care of themselves, and eventually their community as well.

Bridging the Communication Gap between System-Impacted and Non-Impacted People

Vera Institute Archives - Prison Fellowship
Photo Credit: Vera Institute of Justice

Language is a powerful tool whose impact is dependent on how it is used. In informal language, our words are used quickly and unconsciously with minimal thought put towards the harm and miscommunication they can cause. In many situations, our words are practically scripted and spoken out of social obligation rather than an intentional communication of thoughts. Within the context of the carceral state, those who have experienced incarceration and those who have not need equal access to language to promote healthier relationships and communication that could eventually lead to positive social change.

System-impacted people face many roadblocks in part due to the harmful language society uses to label them, including being othered within their communities. In recent years, there has been a push for everyone to be using humanizing and advocacy centric language to destigmatize those who have been incarcerated and encourage communities to support them. For incarcerated people, education is needed to minimize the unequal knowledge of authorized language and codes that put communities, such as those with lower socioeconomic status and people of color, at a disadvantage to remaining in intergenerational cycles of incarceration. Both impacted and non-impacted people benefit from being educated on how their language can be a tool to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of people around them.

Learning Humanizing Language

Words Matter: Don't Call People Felons, Prisoners, Or Inmates
Photo Credit: Vera Institute of Justice

Our decisions about what words we use to describe imprisonment and those affected by it have arguably evolved based on social meanings of language that shape identity. These meanings are given by a wide variety of people including prison authorities, system impacted people, those who work in prison, volunteers, and activists. Social theorist George Herber Mead, reputed to be one of the founders of symbolic interactionism, argued that social meanings and perceptions of self have formed because of interactions with others. His work has had significant influence on the study of stigma, especially within the context of criminality. The relationship between imprisonment and systems of power suggest that our language reflects a complex balance between prisoner, captor, and society and that those in prison have experiences that are shaped by the interactions and language they encounter. 

In a recent blog post entitled “Words Matter,” Patrick Rodriguez shares his insight to how language has played a role in his experience while being imprisoned and his reentry journey. In addition to facing the burden of his past choices, Patrick also must face societal narratives that are controlled by regressive expectations. The use of dehumanizing language, such as inmate, offender, criminal, convict, addict, and felon provokes inflated assumptions of violence and unreliability. In the 1970s, a movement began to advance the use of people-first humanizing language in an effort to move away from stigmatizing labels. While initially used within the disabled community to value the person before the diagnosis, the movement gained traction and the uses for humanizing language expanded to include system impacted people. Within the context of prisons, humanizing language looks like justice involved, system impacted, incarcerated person, formerly incarcerated, and person with a history of substance abuse

In addition to the harm caused by dehumanizing language, language in part determines societal judgements; this is aligned with Sapir-Whorf’s linguistic determinism/relativism. While often criticized for being too broad, Sapir and Whorf do make some useful revelations about the unconscious aspects of linguistic codes. The stigma associated with incarceration creates an us-vs-them mentality and generates fear which translates into policies that encourage further separation. Even after release, the stigma supported by the use of dehumanizing language excludes system-impacted people from access to jobs, education, housing, loans, professional licenses, etc. Dehumanizing language also contributes to higher rates of recidivism and lower support for needed prison reform. Destigmatizing through labels can play a role in successful reintegration through a process called a Pygmalion effect where a positive self-identity is reinforced through positive social interactions. Introducing humanizing language also reduces recidivism because there is a correlation with a communities perception of the formerly incarcerated and their willingness to support them. During his term as president, Obama even emphasized humanizing language as he wrote about his criminal justice reform strategies in the Harvard Law Review. Informed by his visit with formerly incarcerated leaders, Obama’s advocacy led to the US Department of Justice putting a stop to terminology such as felons and convicts during his tenure. 

Right now, there are millions of people incarcerated and many more that have had their lives disrupted by the criminal justice system. Dehumanizing terms categorize people based on their history and do not reflect a capacity for change. Establishing mindful habits such as recognizing the power of words is one step towards a more just society and gives people the chance to rebuild their identity separate from their conviction history. 

Learning Authorized Language

Photo Credit: Juliet Davidson

Learning how to harness language is incredibly impactful, especially when dealing with the complicated and biased American criminal justice system. Racism, bias, and economic inequity are ingrained in the systems white people create, such as education systems, prisons, and even in white policing of language. Policing non-academic understandings of language bureaucratically encodes policing lower socioeconomic communities, people of color, and those with nonstandard English varieties. Within the criminal justice system, courtroom transcribers are even notoriously bad about accurately documenting language beyond standardized white language. In doing so, speakers are misrepresented, causing wide-reaching consequences. Language education can help break cycles of mass incarceration, shift stigma by contradicting harmful stereotypes, and reduce recidivism through accessing employment, education opportunities, and other needs if released. 

Since Brown v. Board of Education and the subsequent desegregation of schools, schools have systematically placed African American students in special education programs at a disproportionate rate. This pattern has only become more prevalent when paired with limited white language knowledge or any type of language or learning disorder. When improper support is provided for these students, there are consequences that persist throughout that child’s life, including higher drop-out and incarceration rates. The overrepresentation of people of color in special education and the criminal justice system highlights the institutional racism within America and supports a correlation to the phenomenon of the school to prison pipeline. Being able to code switch into white language might be a performative form of self-censorship, but the unequal knowledge of authorized language and codes puts communities and individuals at a disadvantage to remaining in intergenerational cycles of incarceration. Access to authorized language through education allows incarcerated individuals a better chance of being heard. 

Education also allows incarcerated people to break societal narratives supported by dehumanizing language. As discussed previously, there are negative and inflated expectations of system impacted people that often include assuming they are academically and professionally unaccomplished. Averting negative emotions and expectations is difficult. Studies have found that people disproportionately recall bad experiences with greater clarity. With the news and social media keeping everyone up to date with the newest crime to occur, halting stigma and stereotypes is almost impossible. Stories are often not told from the perspective of incarcerated people so education on learning language that people will listen to is a necessary, but frustrating, first step towards change.

Ultimately, education is a useful tool for reducing recidivism in a few ways. On the inside, a survey of an Indiana prison showed that those enrolled in college classes committed 75% fewer infractions than those who were not enrolled. They attribute this to education breaking down racial and ethnic barriers both between incarcerated individuals and between staff and those incarcerated. Additionally, they found a positive correlation between access to classes and the improved self-esteem of incarcerated people. The benefits of education do go further than prison walls. Studies done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that there is a 43% reduction in recidivism for those who accessed prison education programs and the higher the degree, the lower the recidivism rate. A study by the Department of Policy Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles found that “a $1 million investment in incarceration will prevent about 350 crimes, while that same investment in [prison] education will prevent more than 600 crimes.” A significant reason for this is the improved employment opportunities and smoother transition towards achieving employment, a critical moment for defining a successful reentry. Regardless of the program, education of any kind teaches you to communicate effectively and think critically, arguably the two most important aspects of any job. 

With the documented importance of access to education, it is necessary to rethink higher education and its relationship to social and political change. Organizations such as Common Good Atlanta and campaigns like Beyond the Box highlight critical oversights of the Georgia prison system to allow system impacted people the tools they need to succeed. Restricting, however intentional, access to education on the basis of race, socioeconomic status, privilege, past incarceration, and more only serves as a detriment to our communities’ ability to support one another.

Future of Language Education

Office of Criminal Justice | Homepage | City of Philadelphia
Photo Credit: The City of Philadelphia

Language includes two basic elements: the ability to speak and be understood and the ability to listen and understand. Both are required for communication and without one element, words are unproductive. While language education occurs primarily within an individual community, it is important to understand that the goal should be better cross-cultural understanding and communication. The American criminal justice system affects millions of people with a variety of intersectional identities that inform their language. Managing culturally diverse spaces such as prison reform and abolition movements is challenging, especially when individuals are speaking a different language. Alongside productive communication skills also comes an increased capacity for potential change and collaborative efforts that encourage problem solving that brings people together. Choosing constructive language to communicate as equals is necessary to build a foundation for future change. 

Work Cited:

Cox, Alexandra. “The Language of Incarceration.” Incarceration, vol. 1, no. 1, 23 July 2020, pp. 1–13.,

Davis, Lois M., et al. “How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here? The Results of a Comprehensive Evaluation.” RAND Corporation, The Bureau of Justice Assistance , 18 Mar. 2014,