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College focuses on morality of isolation cells, prisons

Philander Smith College cites Pope Francis in teaching social justice

Published: November 21, 2014   
Aprille Hanson
Philander Smith College student Ahmad Williams explains why students involved with the Social Justice Institute built a replica isolation cell. About 80,000 U.S. prisoners are kept in isolation cells.

A room a little smaller than a parking space, 23 hours a day. This is the reality for about 80,000 prisoners across the United States held in isolation cells on any given day.

As Pope Francis recently said to the International Association of Penal Law, the focus on punishment rather than reforming criminals is too often the goal of prison systems throughout the world, saying “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”

Locally, Dr. Joseph Jones, professor and founding executive director of the Social Justice Institute at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, and his students are preaching the same message under the banner of social justice.

“We need to start to have a real conversation about what do we mean by rehabilitation?” Jones said. “One of the things we talk about as Christians, we talk about grace, we talk about mercy. What does that really mean in a real-world context? I think the pope is spot on.”

“Locking someone up in an isolation cell for 23 hours a day for the rest of their life is just as cruel and unusual as killing them ... Not being able to give people a second chance is hypocritical to our whole Christian experience. Grace, that’s a very fundamental cornerstone to our belief and to not apply that to individuals who sin or do bad things or to give up on them is to not do the will of God.”

Philander Smith is a United Methodist Church-based institution that made a commitment in 2007 to focus on social justice issues to “help change the world for the better,” thus creating the Social Justice Institute, Jones said. Part of those issues fall under the “Isolation Uncensored” project, meant to educate the public about the death penalty and solitary confinement.

To drive that point home, students under the direction of Jones and with the help of Rev. Thompson Murray of Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church in Little Rock, built an isolation cell replica at the school, complete with stats and information throughout the tiny cell that explain more about this form of punishment that Jones contended should be illegal under U.S. law that prevents against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“People go in with maybe an excited mood or anxious mood and come out really affected, seeing how small it is,” Jones said. “(We’re) just trying to get people to see this is one problem that’s part of a whole entire system.”

The cell, which took about four months to build, opened to the public in January, after the screening of “Herman’s House,” a documentary about prisoner Herman Wallace who died from liver cancer three days after he was released in October 2013. Wallace spent 41 years in a solitary confinement cell in Angola Prison in Louisiana after killing a prison guard.

Student Candace Watts, a 22-year old senior majoring in biology at Philander Smith, along with three other students helped start the Social Justice League, the student organization that built the isolation cell replica. Watts said the organization is planning to take the cell to other locations to spread awareness about the death penalty and isolation.

“What struck me most about it was the complete idea of bringing to the public the realness of what actually happens to prisoners on death row,” Watts said.

Besides the reality of it, Watts said as Christians, it should be a wake-up call to God’s commandments.

“To an extent, Romans 13 talks about how the laws of the land are to be followed, because God placed the government and the laws there. And if they are not followed, there will be punishment,” Watts said. “But this is where it gets complicated — who delegates the punishment and the severity of it? As far as the death penalty, that is a clear violation of the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shall not kill.’”

Jones said seeing his students “on fire” for a social justice issue has been a “joy.” But, mercy and values must extend beyond the college campus, Jones said.

“Have we conceded to that fact that people are not ‘reformable’? It raises a whole other set of questions on who is redeemable and who is not,” Jones said. “Nine times out of 10 the people who don’t match that profile of being forgivable are black and brown people. You have to throw the issue of race into it.” 

Jones spoke about his death penalty work Nov. 11 at the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty banquet at Our Lady of Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

The argument for many people is that criminals who commit heinous crimes should be punished to the fullest, often the death penalty or life imprisonment.

However, Pope Francis contended, “All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty. And this, I connect with life imprisonment,” he said.

Jones agreed, saying that the “eye for an eye” mentality with the death penalty directly contradicts what Jesus preached.

“Here’s the most poignant point — when you kill somebody (who committed murder), you lose all the moral ground because you’re committing the same act that they did. There are other ways to punish someone for doing certain things,” Jones said. “It’s almost the height of hypocrisy ... it’s just not right.”

“One of the things we have to do is change the public’s opinion about prisons,” Jones said, pointing to those who spend years and years behind bars for drug offenses or nonviolent crimes. “How many times have we all made the wrong decision? ... The first thing we need to do is humanize the individuals who are convicted, not just demonize anybody who goes to prison or jail.”

Part of the solution, Jones said, are conscious efforts to reform prisoners rather than just house them and to provide more community outreach and programs for youth that discourages a life of crime. The way to do it, Jones said, is getting the young people involved.

“It has to start with the youth and young people understanding, facilitating a conversation, inspiring change,” Jones said.

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