Review of Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

[1] In her recent and important book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness (reviewed in this issue), attorney Michelle Alexander calls for a movement on par with the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century in order to overturn the damage caused by the unprecedented incarceration of large portions of the U.S. population since the early 1970s. To spark such a movement, we need a “positive vision of what we can strive for—a society in which all human beings of all races are treated with dignity, and have a right to food, shelter, health care, education, and security.”[1] Alexander maintains that this vision could undergird multi-racial coalitions to address the injustices of large-scale imprisonment, and she sees an important role for faith communities in shaping and directing a new civil rights movement. If a movement like the one Alexander yearns for arises, James Samuel Logan’s Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment will have made a significant contribution to the formation of a Christian vision of a society no longer marred by mass incarceration that can support the flourishing of all human beings of all races.

[2] This 2008 book could be read in two sections. The first three chapters of the book concentrate on the “social functions” and “collateral social consequences” of “the prison-industrial complex,” which Logan defines as “a set of bureaucratic, economic, and political interests which encourage increased spending on incarceration” (4). Within this complex, incarceration serves several social functions, according to Logan, including alleviating public fear about crime; supporting the careers of “tough-on-crime” politicians; providing economic stimulus to prison entrepreneurs as well as local and state governments; and managing vulnerable and frustrated populations that cycle between prison and the street (10-11, 17). While these functions may be the intended outcomes of the prison-industrial complex, Logan convincingly argues that imprisonment also delivers “retributive degradation” to people convicted of crime, which then “re/produces criminality” as “inmates must endure the imposition of a community not fit for the potential production or actualization of decent human beings in community and society” (33-34).

[3] In his second chapter, Logan delineates the consequences of the prison-industrial complex, especially the increasing “stigmatization of ‘people of color’ (particularly Black people)” (11). The burdens of large-scale imprisonment are borne disproportionately by Black men, but also increasingly by Black women and children and the impoverished communities from which most prisoners come.

[4] Beyond these more tangible effects, the prison-industrial complex contributes to “social alienation” (the topic of the third chapter), which Logan defines as “the human tendency…to turn away from our mutual affections for one another, to participate in neglectful indifference toward—and even the most virulent oppression of—persons and groups other than the ones to which we believe ourselves to belong” (101-102). While discussing “atomism” and “individualism” as two facets of social alienation, Logan also attends to “anti-Black White racism” as an especially dangerous strain of alienation that has helped to create the prison-industrial complex.

[5] Logan does well in these chapters at explaining the factors that have contributed to our increasing dependence on the prison in the United States and its effects on our society as whole, but also on African-American populations in particular. Despite the strengths of his argument, two areas could use more attention. First, the term “prison-industrial complex” has received significant criticism in recent years, even among people who are deeply critical of the realities it describes. While social historian Mike Davis first coined the term, it is more frequently associated with Angela Davis and Christian Parenti.[2] Although Angela Davis continues to use the term, Parenti has long criticized it. He recognizes that, in many ways, our increasing dependence on prisons has occurred independently of political fear-mongering and prison profiteering because of the need in U.S. capitalism “to manage and contain its surplus populations and poorest classes with paramilitary forms of segregation, containment, and repression.”[3] Since the early 2000s, “mass incarceration” has been used more frequently to describe the unprecedented rate of imprisonment and size of prison population in the United States, as well as the ways in which imprisonment has come to focus less on individual offenders and more on certain groups, or masses, of the population.[4] The terms of “prison-industrial complex” and “mass incarceration” represent significant differences in understanding what is happening with imprisonment in our country, and it would be helpful if Logan said more about why he chose the former term. This choice suggests a specific understanding of the causes of large-scale imprisonment in the United States, and Logan ought to explain why he has this particular understanding versus that associated with mass incarceration, a term that he never uses in the book.

[6] On the surface, this criticism may seem like an academic quibble, but the choice of this terminology may reflect a deeper area of concern with these three chapters, namely, a lack of clarity in the history leading to mass incarceration. While Logan accurately names many of the factors that contributed to the buildup of our prisons (the “War on Drugs,” increasingly harsh sentencing practices, and a shift from rehabilitation to incapacitation and retribution as the guiding ideologies of our penal systems), he does not account for how several of these factors historically preceded the rise of prison industries and private prisons. Prison profiteering therefore could not have started the ball rolling toward mass incarceration (although the drive for profits certainly kicked the ball down the field in the later construction of prison policy). This history suggests that something other than the prison-industrial complex created our circumstances, and Logan’s history of the roots of American penal practices in anti-Black White racism in his third chapter goes a long way to explaining where that responsibility lies. Unfortunately, his discussion jumps from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, leaving his readers without a full picture of how mass incarceration continues to both perpetuate and depend upon fear of Black men (and increasingly, Black women). Readers who want to fill out this picture would be well-served by supplementing Logan’s text with Michelle Alexander’s book. A more accurate and detailed historical account would support the ideas associated with mass incarceration more than those associated with the prison-industrial complex. Furthermore, it would suggest that responsibility for large-scale imprisonment lies not only with political and business fat cats, but also with all of us who participate in a culture that systemically degrades people of color, particularly Black people.

[7] The second half of the book offers Logan’s construction of a Christian social ethics of punishment in response to the prison-industrial complex. Chapter four explicates Stanley Hauerwas’s interpretation of “good punishment” as punishment directed toward the telos of forgiveness and reconciliation, which Hauerwas presents in his essay “Punishing Christians.”[5] The next two chapters critically develop concepts borrowed from Hauerwas: “politics of healing memories” and “politics of ontological intimacy.”

[8] In chapter five, Logan presents politics of healing memories, which entails remembering past transgressions in the context of communal recognition of the redemption of all of our transgressions by Jesus Christ. This recognition undergirds the pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation as the goal of good punishment, which opens the possibility of transformed lives through a process of “excommunication.” While appreciative of Hauerwas’s politics of healing memories, Logan criticizes this concept in several ways. First, he finds the language of “excommunication” to connote cruel exclusion, not the “invitation” back into community that Hauerwas purports it to be (180-182). Second, Hauerwas does not attend to the need for “healing memories” in response to the anti-Black White racism that has contributed to large-scale imprisonment (219-226). Finally, given Hauerwas’s critique of modern liberal society, “his ethics of punishment does not allow for any practically useful and countercultural consideration of alternatives to imprisonment” (195). By the end of chapter five, readers may be frustrated that it seems that Logan’s detailed dissection of Hauerwas may have no payoff in terms of “better attitudes, institutions, and policies related to punishment and imprisonment” that Christians could advocate (190).

[9] Logan hopes to correct the final problem with his revision of politics of ontological intimacy in chapter six. He defines ontological intimacy as “the binding and dynamic way of being-there-with-and-for-others that should characterize a Christian faith seeking to participate in the being of God, as modeled for Christians in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ” (13). For Logan, the vision of ontological intimacy is the context in which Christians pursue good punishment, and it presents the telos of forgiveness and reconciliation that orients a politics of healing memories, which can address both individual wrong-doing and broader social alienations such as racism. Logan proposes restorative justice, decarceration, and (relative) prison abolition as practical courses of action for Christians.

[10] On the whole, Logan’s text makes important contributions to the positive vision necessary for a movement to overcome mass incarceration. However, his final chapters at times obscure this vision. First, Logan focuses too much attention on Hauerwas. He defends his focus on two bases: that Hauerwas is the most influential theologian living in the United States today and that Hauerwas’s Anabaptist pacifist commitments align with Logan’s Mennonite faith. These are fair reasons for drawing on Hauerwas, but many other Mennonites and other Anabaptists, such as Howard Zehr, have addressed issues related to mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex and are worthy of more consideration than Logan gives them. While Logan does discuss Zehr’s Little Book of Restorative Justice, this book represents only a sliver of the literature on restorative justice; in fact, it represents only a sliver of the literature on restorative justice written by Zehr.[6] In his prolific career, Hauerwas seems to have given scant consideration to criminal justice and incarceration, and as Logan cogently argues, almost no meaningful attention to anti-Black White racism. Logan may benefit from expanding his scope of conversation partners beyond Hauerwas. Zehr alone has written numerous texts throughout his career that could expand Logan’s horizons in this book.

[11] One of the effects of Logan’s focus on Hauerwas is that he offers too little in terms of practical responses to the prison-industrial complex. He devotes only fifteen pages to alternatives to incarceration, and for most readers who are unfamiliar with the possibilities of restorative justice, rehabilitation, decarceration, and prison abolition, these pages will likely seem incomplete and unconvincing. Less attention on Hauerwas could mean more attention on making a stronger case for reasonable courses of action other than prisons.

[12] Finally, Logan seems bogged down in Hauerwas’s use of “politics of healing memories” and “politics of ontological intimacy.” Readers may find these phrases bulky, awkward, and unclear. Furthermore, these terms are not endemic to any Christian tradition that I know of. Rather than conform to Hauerwas’s jargon, Logan may be better served by looking for terms in the heart of his heritage that readers could easily recognize as part of their own faith traditions and that could speak to the Christian call to pursue justice in relation to all of our neighbors. Why not “forgiveness and reconciliation” instead of healing memories? Why not “communion” instead of ontological intimacy?

[13] Mass incarceration, or the prison-industrial complex, will not end without a movement for justice, and Christians must participate in this movement both because our faith demands it and because the movement will never succeed without us. Logan’s Good Punishment? offers a vision that could help Christians see their role in such a movement. While the vision is sometimes obscured in the book, readers will find in Logan’s work insights into how our faith should lead us to forgiveness, reconciliation, and communion that uphold a society in which all human beings of all races are treated with dignity, without the looming threat of prison.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012), 259.

[2] For the first usage of the term, see Mike Davis, “Hell Factory in the Field: A Prison Industrial Complex,” The Nation, February 20, 1995, 229.

[3] Quoted in a review of Parenti’s Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New York: Verso, 2000). See Theodore Hamm, “Our Prison Complex,” The Nation, October 11, 1999, 23.

[4] David Garland, “Introduction: The Meaning of Mass Imprisonment,” in Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences, ed. David Garland (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001), 1-3.

[5] See Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004) for the republication of this essay.

[6] Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002).

Amy Levad

Amy Levad is an assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a member of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE).