Lecture explores religion, morality in prison abolition

By depicting the size of prison populations in a variety of countries, the above graph reveals the depth and extent of the mass incarceration crisis on a global scale. Courtesy of Mapsofworld.

On Thursday, Feb. 7, Vincent Lloyd and Joshua Dubler, coauthors of “Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons,” came to Vassar College to give a lecture on the concept and feasibility of prison abolition and the role of religion in justice.

Lloyd, an Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, spoke of his interest in religion and how it connects to prison abolition activism: “I was drawn to the study of religion because I could see how religious communities motivated and sustained social justice struggles, such as a living wage campaign supporting low-wage workers that was happening on my campus at the time,” he shared. “Writing about the religious resources available to dismantle mass incarceration, in a way that’s aimed at motivating religious communities and secularist activists to partner in the work of prison abolition, struck me as a way of bringing together my scholarly expertise and my existential commitment to oppose domination around one of the defining issues of our time.”

During the lecture, Dubler discussed the change in popular ethics within just one generation, depicted through the abolition of slavery. “As a moral fact, I don’t think anyone here would contest that no one should be owned by another person,” he observed. “[It was a] social movement that established that as a moral fact, and we look to [those involved] as inspiration in trying to assert another moral fact, an analogous moral fact, that a human doesn’t belong in a cage.”

So what attitudes must change to actualize such ethical standards? Attendee Ally Aquilina-Piscitello ’21 said that society must abandon the popular perception of incarceration and those incarcerated. “We need to change the dehumanizing language that our society and campus uses to discuss prisoners and criminals,” Aquilina-Piscitello asserted. “Often our conceptualization of prisons revolves heavily around [those committing crimes such as] rape and murder, but we need to make a distinction between those criminals versus criminals that are an outcome of institutionalized racism and poverty.”

Lloyd agreed that language change is a necessary first step toward ending mass incarceration. He further stressed that, in addition to mass incarceration, prison itself is a moral abomination. “[Prison] must be named, shamed and extirpated from our society,” Lloyd said. “The prison infects our culture, normalizing violence as the means to address broken relationships, compounding the injustices that accompany anti-Black racism, patriarchy and other social ills, and obscuring the profound need to reinvest in marginalized communities and to reweave the social fabric.”

Aquilina-Piscitello discussed how, after reading Lloyd and Dubler’s book and attending their lecture, her outlook on prison abolition feasibility changed: “I have never even thought of mass incarceration being abolished, and the idea does seem far fetched, but [Lloyd and Dubler] made a strong point that while the institution of slavery was still intact, no one thought the abolishment of slavery would be possible.”

Dubler concluded the lecture by emphasizing the importance of activism and encouraging Vassar student involvement in abolitionist projects: “Vassar students should have ample opportunities to involve themselves in abolitionist work, whether by organizing with incarcerated people or organizing for city and county level reforms that will shrink the criminal justice system,” he said, citing a range of reforms currently being pushed in Albany, including cash bail, solitary confinement, parole for aging prisoners, marijuana legalization and discovery rules. “These are all winnable fights.”

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