The Wicked Problems of Jails and Prisons

Many thanks to Kim for pointing out to me an article at ABC's Religion and Ethics. "Can Systematic Theology become 'Pastoral' Again, and Pastoral Theology 'Theological'?" is written by Sarah Coakley, and in it she shares some of her reflections about the need for more rigorous theological reflection in pastoral locations like jails and hospitals.

The article is a reflection on the disjoint between pastoral and systematic theology, and a call for pastoral theology to become more rigorous so that it can tackle the "wicked problems" we face in our penal and health care systems.

Kim was interested in how my experiences in prison lined up with Coakley's.

This part of her essay caught my attention:
I was struck that in my time in the Boston jail I was up against a nexus of issues which no one seemed adequately to have probed in relation to one another - or at least no one seemed to have probed theologically. There was the harsh legal response to minor drugs offences; the racialized policy of policing in the "black" area of Boston; the deliberate brutalizing and further criminalizing of young men in impossibly cramped cell conditions in the jail; and the scarcely-veiled threat by the jail authorities towards chaplains and other well-wishers that any dimensions to their ministry that might be construed as politically subversive would be harshly riposted and repressed. 
One of Coakley's points in the article is that when pastoral theology focuses on emotional and therapeutic issues, in either hospitals and jails, it fails to give theological attention to the systemic causes of suffering in the world.

Simply stated, when pastoral theology reduces itself to the emotions of the inmate or patient, it becomes a form of palliative care.

And if you need a reminder, here's the definition of palliative: "relieving pain without dealing with the cause of the condition."

And so, Coakley argues, pastoral theology should strive to give more than palliative care. Pastoral theology should attend to how the system creates suffering.

But the trouble in my experience, as Coakley notes in the last sentence of the quote above, is that if a chaplain attempts more than palliative care, and begins to offer theological reflections on the justice of the system, they risk being labeled as politically subversive and kicked out of the jail/prison.

So the point I made to Kim is that the disjoint between pastoral and systematic theology, at least in the prison, isn't only due to the historical developments Coakley describes in her article. The disjoint is produced by the system itself, forcing the chaplain to make a wicked choice. Here's a bit of what I shared with Kim:
I have a friend who was doing prison work in Tennessee. Very justice-oriented guy. He got kicked out of the prison because he was helping the prisoners organize. So now he can't go inside a prison anymore.

So the system forces you into the pastoral position--helping the men "cope" with their lot (i.e., submit to their punishment). Anything that has the men question the justice of their condition is risky. If I address these issues I may never see the men ever again, or be allowed to work in a prison again. In short, the principality and power of the prison forces you to divorce the pastoral from justice.

You have to pick your fight. Do you want to be inside, with the men, or forever exiled to the outside? That's the wicked problem.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply