Unitarian Universalist Prison Justice Histories

Among the Unitarian Universalists, with whom I seem to have cast my lot for good, there are calls that we focus our energies on justice around prison reforms. This is an area where we have a long and honorable — and diverse — tradition. It falls into two categories, which I’ll just touch on here.

The first is spiritual care and justice for people actually in prison. Our most famous example of this is actually the nation’s most famous example, so let’s fly the flag. Dorothea Dix was the daughter of an affluent Bostonian, but in her young adult years, she was afflicted with depression (I forget why). Her minister — pay attention here, this is the denominational link — was William Ellery Channing, the prophetic voice for the founding of the American Unitarian Association and related institutions for denominational ministers. Channing, himself blessed with every worldly comfort, suggested she could lift her spirits by caring for others, and set her up teaching religious materials in the local prison.

Let me underscore: William Ellery Channing organized lay presence in the local prison. You cannot get better polity credentials than that. So yes, prison justice people, go for it.

Dorothea Dix went on to become the prophetic leading advocate for humane and uplifting institutional care for people in prisons and people with mental illness. In those days, as in ours, people with mental illness were over-represented in the prison population. Which means there is still work to be done, on both fronts.

Jump ahead over one hundred years, and regard the 1970s and 1980s: the nation entered a spasm of prison construction. Voters in every state could not figure out how to deal with the breakdown of racially and culturally segregated social structures, nor with the infiltration of recreational and addictive drugs (sometimes the same, sometimes not) into neighborhoods they had deluded themselves were drug free. In 1974, Unitarian Universalists passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on this binge in sentencing and imprisoning until fundamental issues were sorted out more fairly. Please excuse the lack of footnotes for what I write next, for my dear friend, the late Mary Chapman, was the person who relocated to Washington DC to run the UUSC office, tiny, underfunded, but passionate, to wage and finally track this losing battle. The closing of that office — admission of defeat, really — was a formative event in my life. We had struggled so desperately (my own focus was opposition to the death penalty) and our own denomination had turned its face away from us. Mary and her team filed their records neatly, I guess, because the archives at Harvard Divinity School are clearly-labeled. They bring up so many memories, they scream for so many dissertations. And they show that we have been doing this work, sometimes in large numbers and well-publicized ways, sometimes quietly, struggling, as Mary was, for much of the twentieth century. It came from our commitment to racial and economic justice.

I can see now — on my sixtieth birthday, planning my wedding and caregiving for a fiancee with a degenerative disease, that a return to excellence in pastoral care (the big call of the first round of women ministers: our families need our support to define themselves, affirm their choices, and flourish differently) among ourselves — had merit. I can see, also, that what looked self-centered at the time — the fight against Reaganomics — had self-preservation aspects that supported the ability to engage in social justice work. 

What was the second strain in prison justice work? Personally-based preventive measures have had wider public acclaim, but been conducted through interfaith secular cooperation rather than avowedly denominational set ups. The temperance movement strove to keep families out of poor farms and debtor prisons, as well as to limit thieving and vandalism by persistent drunkards. Public education — including workingman’s clubs and single women’s education — operated on the assumptions that people with fundamental literacy, numeracy, and technical skills would be able to find adequate employment to stay out of crime. Single women’s housing recognized that young women in large cities were more likely to fall into prostitution, shoplifting, abusive relationships, if they did not have secure affordable housing. Again we see the name of William Ellery Channing, who delivered one of the most fundamental statements of our religious purpose for anyone, “Self-Culture,” not in a church to a congregation, but to inaugurate the Franklin Lectures, a Boston working men’s social program. As that century bled into its successor, Samuel Atkins Eliot II, whose works I often disparage, in concert with his father, Charles William Eliot, whose religious work I disparage even more, spent decades of Saturday mornings tutoring incarcerated persons and recently released former prisoners, in hopes that they would soon be chosen for paid employment by respectable employers. Such efforts can be seen, in unbroken line, by more numerous but less famous UUs and others, at the Boston Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministries (housed in a facility, First Parish of Roxbury, of which my forebears were founding members, might I boast).

How do we use this information to tackle an injustice which has only gotten worse with the passage of time? The fundamental problem in the Reagan era was the administrative decision to choose the single most effective rallying cry we could, and let the others go. Universal economic and social opportunity remain fundamental to avoiding imprisonment, both the first time and then as a recidivist. Anyone wanting to take advantage of these opportunities requires personal uplift and pastoral care, both within prisons and throughout society. Fairly written and fairly administered laws keep people safe. And activists require — as I do now — safe havens for pastoral care and personal support when our own lives hit hard times.

I welcome a new generation undertaking the work which my friend and I were so sad to leave behind not so long ago. But let these newcomers honor the ongoing work our faith community has been doing and still does, even if it does not appear directly related to prison justice.


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