A Preview of KtB’s Prison Panel Saturday

What’s on tap for KtB’s “Prison-Spirituality Complex” panel discussion this Saturday night? Redemption stories that have shaped America’s prisons. Fantasies of solitude that have made solitary confinement the American way of rehabilitating prisoners. The role of race in the mass incarceration of African Americans: the prison-industrial complex as a contemporary plantation.  What can bible stories do for inmates and prisoner advocates? What does the Exodus story have to do with prisoner re-entry programs? Are prisons a fad among activists, artists and legal scholars? What’s the voyeurism in wanting to see inside prisons?          

School yourself on prisons—from the origins of solitary confinement, to the legacy of slavery in our penal system, to the art of jailing immigrants.  Or school us, with your two cents of insight on prisons.  Join KtB for “The Prison-Spirituality Complex,” Saturday night, 7:00 – 9:00 PM (starting with cocktails at 6) at The Tank Space for Performing and Visual Arts, 354 W. 45th Street (between 8th and 9th Ave.) And read these pieces by the panelists.

Ordinary Injustice

In this essay, Caleb Smith comments on a current case of wrongful conviction in CT, to expose how hard it is to find justice in our penal system. He traces the history of the debate between reform and vengeance that has shaped American prison history: Nineteenth-century reformers believed prisoners could be redeemed through isolation. They advocated for solitary confinement, using the language of humanitarian intervention in the more explicitly brutal ways of punishing prisoners. But solitary confinement carries its own peculiar ways of harming inmates, Smith tells us. Now, the debate between reform and vengeance is almost dead. The prison-industrial complex is a “default receptacle” for drug addicts, the mentally ill and the poor. We’re in an era of “incarceration for its own sake.”

Be an Established People in the Land of Exile                                                                                 

What does incarceration have to do with voter discrimination? Rima Vesely-Flad leads this piece with a bible study that began a college-level religion class she taught at Sing Sing prison.  Reflecting on Jeremiah 29:7, one of her students thinks about what the prophecy means for African Americans: “Jeremiah is telling [us] to become an established people.” How to re-establish ourselves as a people in the land of exile?  Vesely-Flad asks. How to restore justice in a land that still disenfranchises millions of African Americans, through state laws that turn potential voters with felony convictions away from the polls? “We must do more than pray,” Vesely-Flad declares.  We must restore voting rights to African Americans.

Redefining Restorative Justice

Vesely-Flad addresses the people of faith involved in “Restorative Justice” ministries for formerly incarcerated people. She emphasizes the “Restoration of Rights” necessary to combat legal discrimination against people with criminal convictions. She calls on people of faith inspired by the civil rights movement to wake up to discrimination, in the mass incarceration of African Americans. “This is our civil rights issue.

The Art of Jailing, from Mark Dow’s American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons

Dow interviews former asylum seeker and former jailer about the New Jersey trial of correctional officers who abused two dozen immigration detainees at Union County Jail, in a “beat and greet” reception: kicking, punching, plucking body hairs with pliers. A former jailer named Frank admits that his colleagues over-reacted. But he’s more upset that they were convicted of misconduct. And Frank thinks humiliation is a more effective way of controlling prisoners than beating them.


Caleb Smith is an assistant professor of English and American Studies at Yale. He edits imaginedprisons.org, a web forum for conversation about his 2009 book The Prison and the American Imagination and the questions it raises: “What roles do prisons and prisoners play in our political life and in our culture? How have artists and writers, both inside prisons and in the world at large, invited us to imagine the institutions of captivity?” The site explores the imaginative life and afterlife of the U.S. penitentiary—from the history of jails, penitentiaries, and plantations to the sprawling prison system of the twenty-first century, including the scandals of American war prisons overseas.

Rima Vesely-Flad is a visiting professor of public policy at Sarah Lawrence College and a doctoral student in social ethics at Union Theological Seminary. Her research and publications have explored the connections between Calvinist theology and criminal law, the Slave Codes and Black Codes of the nineteenth century, mass incarceration and legal discrimination. As a board member and founder of the Interfaith Coalition of Advocates for Reentry and Employment (ICARE), she works in coalition with organizational representatives to support the “Restoration of Rights” for persons returning home from prison.

Mark Dow, author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons started writing about immigration detention in the 1990s after teaching at Miami’s Krome detention center and working at the Haitian Refugee Center. His chapter on Guantánamo history and Haitians appears in Keeping Out the Other (2008). He co-edited Machinery of Death: The Reality of America’s Death Penalty Regime. Dow has been a finalist in the Yale Series and Colorado Prize poetry competitions. His poems, translations, and reviews have appeared in Boston Review, Conjunctions, Mudlark, SLAM! Wrestling, and Threepenny Review. He is working on a book of nonfiction prose, parts of which have appeared in Killing the BuddhaLIT, the New York Times, and the Paris Review. He teaches English at Hunter College.

Jamel Massey is the Outreach Coordinator for The Exodus Transitional Community. In this capacity he conducts presentations within the general community centered around the topic of reentry.  Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and incarcerated for nearly seventeen years, he is no stranger to the challenges faced by ex-offenders returning to their communities.  Since his release in 2005, he has held a number of positions within various human service agencies including Case Manager, Support Group Facilitator and Service Coordinator. Armed with personal experience, a human service background and a message of hope, he encourages others to tap into the transformative power within themselves and to maximize all of the resources available to them.  With his message he inspires and motivates formerly incarcerated men and women to continue on the path of successful re-entry and redemption. 


Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.