A Mormon Case for Prison Abolition
I’m Conor, I believe in prison abolition and I’m a Mormon.
My support for prison abolition is rooted in my religious and moral values, a perspective that I haven’t seen talked about as much in the recent conversations surrounding criminal justice reform, defunding or abolishing the police, and restorative justice more broadly. I by no means speak for the Church or for all Mormons, but here’s my reasoning for believing in prison abolition, as a Mormon.
I’ve supported prison abolition for years, grounded, I think, in my dispositional pacifism, belief in nonviolence, and conviction that redemption is always possible, even for the worst of us. Alma, a prophet in The Book of Mormon, talks to his son Corianton about justice and mercy, insisting on the role of both and preaching that if mercy robs justice or justice refuses mercy, “God would cease to be God” (Alma 42). Alma personally tasted of God’s mercy and knows that it can transform even the most vile of sinners. He also understands that restitution must be made for wrongs that have been committed. This principle can guide us in prison abolition so that we stop focusing on punishing those we believe to have done wrong and prioritize healing as a community and accountability, to truly reconcile justice and mercy, to allow for restitution to be made.
The Lord told the Children of Israel, and Paul later reminded early Christians,
“to me belongeth vengeance” (Deut. 32:35, Romans 12:19).
To me, this means that I should trust that God will make all things right, and that I should not take it into my own hands to inflict suffering on others when I have suffered because of their actions. This lays the groundwork for the life that Jesus calls us all to in the Sermon on the Mount, to:
“love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45).
Can I say I love my enemies when I destroy their families? When I call for fathers and mothers to be separated from their children? When I demand that they be marked for the rest of their mortal existence with a brand that follows them wherever they go? When I call for their lives to be taken in some misguided belief that their sacrifice can restore what was taken from me? When I push for them to be removed from their community and isolated, placed somewhere out of my sight?
I cannot call that love. The more I read about what happens inside prisons and jails and how we treat those that have served time, the more convinced I am that it is not out of love that we send people there. That it does not bless them, nor is it doing them, or us, any good. I am convinced that we are failing each other and failing to live up to the teachings of Jesus, and that we, I, must do better.
I believe, with Paul, that nothing can separate us from God’s love—
"neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 38-39).
To me, this means that there is nothing I can do that would separate God’s love from me. As Isaiah taught, His hand is stretched out still. He is always calling and waiting for us to return. That includes the worst of us. God loves us all.
I believe that it is our calling on earth to be ambassadors of God’s love, which means that we cannot cut people off. We have a sacred responsibility to embody God’s love for them. To be God’s hands and feet on this earth. I don’t know exactly what this love in action looks like, but I believe imagining alternatives to prison that bring all of us into full fellowship and communion with one another is a part of that upholding that sacred responsibility.
God told Moses,
“this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
For me, this means two things here. First, that God is invested in bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of ALL people. I think this leads to the conclusion of universal salvation (a very Mormon idea). If God wants someone to have immortality and eternal life, surely I should value their life? Second, this scripture suggests that learning and progression should be paramount in our engagement with the world, for how else are immortality and eternal life possible?
The Bible Dictionary defines ‘damnation’ as “The state of being stopped in one’s progress.” Prison, and our current punitive justice system, seems to often damn people. To stop their progress, to freeze their lives, to deny them the ability to change, to cut them off from repentance, to smack the cup of grace from their lips, to deny them the redeeming power of the Atonement. And who am I to deny another those same gifts that I need every day?
The Lord taught Joseph Smith to
“Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;
For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him” (D&C 18:10-11).
Perhaps this, along with the injustices he faced personally at the hands of America’s criminal justice system, motivated him to make prison abolition a part of his presidential platform.
But perhaps the scripture that haunts me the most when I think about what we currently do to our brothers and sisters, our friends, our comrades in Christ, is found in verse 40 of the 25th chapter of Matthew:
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Every time we judge our siblings in Christ by the worst thing that they’ve done, we mock God.
Every time we throw another living, breathing human being in prison, we jail God.
Every time we condemn one of our own to death and take their life, we condemn and kill God.