Rethinking Incarceration - A Review

Mass incarceration is a significant problem in the United States. The sheer number of people who are currently in the custody of the various levels of government is staggering. According to one advocacy group, approximately 2.3 million Americans were in some form of corrective custody in 2017. This is a dramatic burden to the population through expended tax revenue, but has an even greater cost for the families of those behind bars, for the communities decimated by this phenomenon, and the individuals who will be permanently marked with the status of ex-con or felon.


The problem of mass incarceration is complicated by unequal racial outcomes, which indicate that approximately 1 in 3 ethnic minorities will pass through the judicial system and spend time in some form of corrective custody. This inequity helps continue the perpetuation of negative images of minorities and accelerates what amounts to a downward spiral in some communities. A large number of minorities are imprisoned; therefore, they are perceived to be dangerous, then they are watched more closely and given fewer breaks, which leads to a larger number of incarcerations. This has negative effects of the general population’s perception of minorities and the perception of the judicial system and police force by minorities. Add in some cases of real corruption and legitimate hostility on both sides and you have something like the stand off we find ourselves in now with people arguing about the importance of black lives versus blue lives.

With that background, the recent volume by Dominique Dubois Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, is timely and takes on a very important topic. The book consists of two parts.

Part one lays out various aspects that contribute to the problem of mass incarceration, with chapters on the war on drugs, a history of racial bias in law enforcement, an overzealous enforcement of law, issues with mental health and immigration, and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. This portion of the volume is largely sociological and helpful in highlighting important elements of a significant source of injustice in our nation.

Part two is a theological argument intended to move readers of the volume to a doctrinal foundation that Gilliard believes will undermine mass incarceration. In this section, Gilliard offers chapters on Quaker involvement in American prisons, prison chaplaincy, penal substitutionary atonement, restorative justice, and a concluding plea for activism in dismantling mass incarceration. This section of the volume is less helpful and less well done.

There are two apparent theses in this book. First, that mass incarceration is a problem with underlying systemic injustices in the American legal system. Gilliard handles that element of the book well. He researched that section well and puts together a solid argument that has potential to convince a skeptical reader.

The second thesis of the book is that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the cause of the problem of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, Gilliard’s attempt at supporting this thesis is, at best, poor. By any fair measure, the theological argumentation of this section of the book is anemic and riddled with fundamental methodological errors, many of which should have been corrected prior to this book’s publication. These errors and the nature of Gilliard’s plea for rejecting the substitutionary atonement significantly diminish the value of this volume, in some cases making it more likely to cement bias against judicial reform among some conservative Christians than convince anyone of the issue’s importance.

Rethinking Incarceration is a useful book in that it raises awareness of a significant issue of systemic injustice. The work Gilliard does in highlighting the racial aspects of the history of mass incarceration is helpful. Unfortunately, by introducing a second thesis and calling for a rejection of a common, orthodox theory of the atonement and by doing so very poorly, Gilliard undermines the good work he does in the beginning of the book. My hope is that a better book from a more careful author will follow this book and lead to a continuing and more theologically robust discussion of this vital topic.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.