Unmasking Mass Incarceration

Prison or Mercy? The dichotomy need not exist for incarcerated individuals according to the restorative justice model, which proposes holding a person accountable for their actions while restoring their relationship to community. Karen Swanson, Director of Wheaton’s Institute for Prison Ministries, shared a story of an incarcerated young man whose life was transformed by a show of restorative justice. “ hired his friends to kill his mother and stepfather. That mother lived, and she went and visited her son in the prison every week after she was beaten.”


Justice came not only through the young man’s imprisonment for killing his stepfather, but through the renewed relationship and forgiveness that was slowly built over time between him and his mother. After his time in prison was completed, he was able to attend Wheaton through the Colson Scholarship. The scholarship program offers a crucial opportunity for restorative justice for the incarcerated. Since it’s conception in 1988, the program has offered scholarships to former felons who have experienced redemption in their lives through Christ. According to Swanson, the story of forgiveness between the young man and his mother is not an anomaly in the history of Colson scholars. “There’s lots of those kinds of stories,” she explained.


The scholarship is https://thewheatonrecord.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/IMG_0048.webpistered through a small office tucked away on the fourth floor of the Billy Graham Center: Wheaton’s Institute for Prison Ministries, part of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. Acclaimed author and former prisoner Chuck Colson, for whom the Colson scholarship was named, founded IPM in 1986 as a way to train Christians entering prison ministry and equip inmates to share the gospel while in prison. In the intervening decades, IPM has worked not only to determine and teach the best ways to bring the Gospel into prisons, it has also taken up the challenge of addressing one of society’s most pressing social, economic and moral issues: mass incarceration. IPM plays a undervalued role in Wheaton’s community — as does the director, Karen Swanson.


Swanson, who has served as IPM’s director since 2005, may not be who you’d expect to find in this role. She didn’t start out in the ministry because of any personal connections through family or friends who have been imprisoned. Instead, she signed up for a prison ministry at Cook County jail while working as a college volleyball coach and physical education instructor because she wanted to help out in the community. In describing her first encounter with the issue of mass incarceration Swanson said, “I didn’t even think about it until I went to Cook County jail,” and added with a laugh, “That one time, God hooked me.”


The more she volunteered, the more she realized she felt called to be in this ministry full-time. Becoming the director for Wheaton’s IPM and spreading the Gospel both to students and inmates seemed like a great fit. There certainly was no lack of people to minister to; the U.S. prison population has risen to 2 million people — 500 percent — since the 1970s, according to the Bureau of Justice. The incarceration statistics became a reality as Swanson became more involved in the issue, and she discovered personal connections to those who were affected.


While working with a former inmate, Swanson met the ex-felon’s girlfriend, a financially unstable single mother who shared two small boys with him. As Swanson started to become friends with the young woman, it came to her attention that she was struggling to keep up with childcare, largely due to her unstable relationship and financial problems. Swanson stepped in and welcomed the boys into her home, sometimes caring for them during stretches of time in which their mother was unable to do so.


Though the mother’s former boyfriend re-offended and is now back in prison, Swanson’s friendship with her has continued for 10 years. The boys now live with their mother full-time, but Swanson continues to see them often and remains involved in their lives. Photos of their smiling faces line the wall of her office. Glancing back at them, she said, “I’m doing everything I can to keep them out of the pipeline.”


According to Swanson, young minority children, like the boys that she helped care for, have a far greater likelihood of ending up in prison because of the underfunded schools in their neighborhoods which give them few advancement opportunities outside of gangs and drug dealing. This phenomenon is referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.”


Children are not the only people affected by mass incarceration. Swanson explained that “it’s upheaval for the families. If it’s the primary breadwinner then you see the effects on the family: loss of housing, has to go back to work, they might need childcare, the shame, stigma, everything that goes with that of having someone who’s incarcerated.”


Swanson also stressed that the issue of mass incarceration does not affect communities equally. She explained that, “it comes down to, whoever’s in power, they don’t want to give up that power.” “There’s two kinds of systems,” she said, “one for the wealthy and politically connected and one for the poor and non-politically connected … one for whites and one for minorities.” Swanson admitted that the issue is complex, and jokingly said that she is not a sociologist, yet her personal belief is that the burden of mass incarceration rests heavily on poor people of color.


Five years ago, Swanson and a colleague wrote a paper on mass incarceration and the Biblical response. Swanson commented that “the church has been pretty silent … and a lot of people in the field who do ministry, that’s not their area of focus.” She stressed that mass incarceration affects everyone, saying that “if it doesn’t touch your life, it’s kind of an out of sight, out of mind issue. But it does touch the communities and the churches, even in the suburbs.”


While Swanson may have criticisms of the church’s stance on mass incarceration, some Wheaton students have recently taken action on the issue. The Solidarity Cabinet organized two events in the last week to draw attention to mass incarceration, including a prayer vigil entitled “Locked in Solidarity: Mass Incarceration Awareness Day.” The prayer vigil lasted 24 hours, in conjunction with similar events across the country. The group also screened a documentary, “13th,” in order to better explain the issue.


While Swanson gained much of her knowledge through volunteering in prisons and interacting directly with inmates, she also wrote her dissertation on faith and moral development prison programs. In considering a Biblical response to the issue of mass incarceration, Swanson repeatedly found herself coming back to the term “restorative justice.” She stressed that she does not stand in opposition to the idea of prison, but believes that prison is often not the best way to deal with societal transgressions. She described the term “restorative justice” by saying, “instead of punishing someone, let’s bring together the victim and the person who caused harm and let’s see how we can hold the person accountable, but also mend the harm that was done.”

Student interest in the issue encourages Swanson, but she remains hopeful that students will continue to be more involved. She prompted students to connect with IPM, saying, “We’re a resource. If they have a loved one who is incarcerated, we would love to talk to you about it, or how to think about the issue and come alongside it.” She encourages students to visit prisons and explore ministry opportunities, but warned that getting “hooked” like she did doesn’t lead to an easy path. “Going into a facility, that’s easy. You come out. But when you work with people in reentry or families that have been impacted, it’s really messy…There’s not always a happy ending,” she said. And yet, when describing her career at IPM, she smiled, “I’ve been here for 12 years, and I just love it.”

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