Responding to Mass Incarceration Biblically

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them” Hebrews 13:3 (NRSV). This verse is one of at least 73 Bible verses about prisoners. It points to how the people of God are to understand and relate to incarcerated people. In fact, the state incarcerated or threatened to incarcerate many biblical heroes and heroines. Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul, Peter, David, Esther, Priscilla, and Elijah are a few. Through their stories, Scripture gives the church guidance about responding to mass incarceration. It guides us on serving both people who are incarcerated and their loved ones.

The Bible’s countercultural approach to incarceration

Many of us assume that incarcerated people must be guilty of crimes. Often this assumption is true. Yet the reasons people end up in jail or prison can be complicated, varied, and nuanced. Incarceration also has impacts many of us rarely consider. We might overlook how incarceration impacts families, friends, and communities who remain behind.

Hebrews 13:3 and many other Bible verses tell us how to be with incarcerated people. They tell us how to approach incarceration as a social condition. God's Word calls us as people of God to:

  1. Care for incarcerated people as though we were in prison with them (Hebrews 13:3).
  2. Realize that incarceration doesn’t merely affect the people found guilty. Spouses and children can suffer. So can parents, siblings and significant others. So can entire communities and neighborhoods. The first part of Ezekiel 18:20 describes how we often treat inmates: “The person who sins shall die.” But we often neglect the next part of that verse: “a child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child.”
  3. Separate people’s behavior from the biblical truth that they are image-bearers of God.
  4. Recognize there are goals of our system of government that create barriers to the goals of God’s kingdom (see the Beatitudes for biblical examples). In these cases, prioritizing God’s ways over the ways of government may be risky. Many in the Bible who faced incarceration did so because they were more loyal to God than to the people in power. Even today, people face risks when pressing for God's justice and right treatment for all.

Some RCA-related organizations that address mass incarceration

  • Children’s Haven: A Place of Healing and Hope: A nonprofit led by Rev. Dr. Patricia Sealy, pastor of the Mott Haven Reformed Church of the Bronx, New York. Children’s Haven offers a safe space for children and youth to:

    • Share their experiences
    • Learn positive ways to deal with tough situations
    • Become productive young men and women. 
  • Rectify Church (RCA): A congregation in Allegan, Michigan, led by Rev. Sarah Lindstrom, a chaplain with Forgotten Man Ministries.  This worshipping community offers a place for returning citizens to find love, acceptance and support as they reknit their lives with friends, families, and their communities. 
  • Coming Home Program: This 18-week program absorbs women and men in transition into supportive communities following incarceration.  Coming Home is a ministry of the Reformed Church of Bronxville in Bronxville, New York, and is led by Rev. Dr. Dawn Ravella. 
  • Chicagoland Prison Outreach (CPO): CPO reaches out to incarcerated and previously incarcerated men and women and their families with the love of Christ. CPO is led by Corey Buchanan, who also serves as director of Mercy and Justice Ministries for the Reformed Church of South Holland, South Holland, Illinois. 

RCA resources for ministry around incarceration

As you and your church engage in ministry around mass incarceration, here are some resources you may find helpful.​

Additional resource recommendations

  • Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (www.offthechartsblog.org/the-rise-in-state-prison-populations): A blog post discussing the rise in state prison populations. The post includes a downloadable interactive map with data from 1978 to 2013 that gives the total number of prisoners per state per year, the rate of imprisoned people per 100,000 people in the population, and total state spending on prisons.
  • Prison Fellowship (www.prisonfellowship.org): Founded by Chuck Colson, Prison Fellowship seeks to change our criminal justice system at every level so that it reflects the principles of restorative justice supported by the Bible and rooted in history. This site has a long list of helpful resource websites dealing with all aspects of restorative justice.
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics (www.bjs.gov): This site contains a wide variety of prison statistics.
  • The Sentencing Project (www.sentencingproject.org): The Sentencing Project was founded in 1986 to provide defense lawyers with sentencing advocacy training and to reduce the reliance on incarceration. Since that time, the Sentencing Project has become a leader in the effort to bring national attention to disturbing trends and inequities in the criminal justice system with a successful formula that includes the publication of groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns, and strategic advocacy for policy reform.
  • Justice for Families (www.justice4families.org): Justice for Families (J4F) is a national alliance of local organizations committed to ending the youth incarceration epidemic. J4F works toward two primary goals: 1) transform how juvenile justice systems operate so that families have voice and power in both how and what decisions are made, and 2) move resources away from youth incarceration toward direct investments in the youth, families, and communities most harmed by these policies.
  • Vera Institute of Justice (www.vera.org): The Vera Institute of Justice contains a large library of criminal justice–related articles on a variety of topics such as men of color in the corrections system, public health issues involved with mass incarceration, and ways that corrections systems can deter crime. The institute has created a number of spin-off nonprofits, including the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (www.cases.org).

We encourage you to become familiar with and pray about the passages of Scripture that relate to prisoners, build loving relationships with those who are or have been incarcerated, and advocate for practical steps that reflect and live into Hebrews 13:3.

Want to do more to address mass incarceration?

For more support in ministry related to mass incarceration, contact Earl James at ejames@rca.org.