With more than 2 million inmates -- including 3,000 awaiting execution -- our nation’s correctional system is in effect a giant caging and killing machine, says the Rev. Joe Ingle, a United Church of Christ minister and longtime prison minister.

“We need to let them out,” Ingle said. “We should be about freeing the captives and coming up with a new paradigm that has restorative justice in it, not retributive justice, which is what we’re doing now.”

Ingle, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, has worked in prison ministry and with people in the criminal justice system for more than 25 years. He is the author of “The Inferno: A Southern Morality Tale,” an account of his friendship with Philip Workman, a Tennessee inmate who was executed after 25 years on death row.

Ingle was at Duke Divinity School recently and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.


Q: Tell us about your work and how you got into prison ministry and advocacy against the death penalty.

It’s something I backed into. I was living and working in East Harlem in New York City while I was a student at Union Seminary. My senior year, Attica happened, which was a rebellion at a prison in upstate New York.

And here I am living in this ghetto, where I made a lot of friends who were dealing with the criminal justice system left and right, and I hadn’t even been in a jail or a prison. And as I watched Attica unfold on TV and talked to my neighbors, I thought, “I want to spend my senior year of seminary visiting prisoners.”

So I spent 20 hours a week visiting prisoners at the Bronx House of Detention, a giant jail across the river from East Harlem, up in the Bronx, and frankly, it changed my life. I went in there not knowing what to expect. I went up, I was oriented, I had my little chaplain badge, and I went up to the sixth floor, and a guard let me in.

We walked across the top of the cellblock to this little interview room, and the guard said that clergy and lawyers visit in this room. I’m a naive seminary student -- right? -- so I said, “Why don’t you let me in there with these guys?”

The guard looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and opened up the door to the cellblock. I stepped across that threshold, and the guard slammed the door. I had thought each individual cell was locked and that I would just go down the line and visit the prisoners in their cells.

But once I crossed that threshold, I realized that every one of those individual cell doors was open, so I was in there with these guys with nothing between us.

The first thought I had was, “Oh my God, I’m locked in here with these animals.”

And that is what we’re all taught in this country. We’re socialized to regard people in prison as less than human. But no sooner did I have that thought than the guy in the first bunk who was sitting there looked up and said, “Man, what are you doing in here?”

I laughed, and I said, “Well, I’m here to visit you guys for the year.” And he introduced himself and took me down and introduced me to everybody else on that cellblock. So I spent that year visiting them.

I didn’t do anything for these guys, and I think that’s the reality about Jesus telling us to go visit the prisoners. Jesus’ point is this: Go visit the prisoners, yes, but it’s not like you’re doing something for the prisoners.

What you find out when you visit prisoners is they’re doing something for you. The ministry that goes on is not me ministering to the prisoners. It’s the other way around, and I think Jesus really knew that, and that’s why he wanted us to get in the prisons.

When you do that, you realize you’re in solidarity with people in prison, that they’re your brothers and sisters -- they’re not less than human, and they’re not animals. And then when you pick up the Bible and start reading it in a prison, you have a whole different perspective than what you were taught in Sunday school, like I was, growing up in the Presbyterian Church in North Carolina. You’re seeing Scripture from a whole different perspective.

It shows you that God is a God of liberation in the sense that Isaiah 61 and Luke 4:18 talk about -- “free the captives.” That’s what we should be doing. It’s not prison reform. We should literally be freeing the captives. We have over 2 million of them in this country.

Q: More than any other country in the world.

By far. It’s not even close, and we have 3,000 set for execution. So what are we doing? When you look at the gospel, which is about love, grace and reconciliation, and you have this machinery which is really a giant killing and caging machinery, as a Christian, you are called to stand up to that and to address it.

We need to let them out. Now, some of them are so damaged because of what happened to them before they got to prison or after they’re in prison, you can’t let them out, for their own good or for our good. But most are truly victims of what is really a racist system. So we should be about freeing the captives and coming up with a new paradigm that has restorative justice in it, not retributive justice, which is what we’re doing now.

Q: Why the racial and religious divide over the death penalty? Pew Research says 67 percent of white evangelicals and 64 percent of white mainliners support the death penalty, slightly more than white adults in general, while black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics are virtually the opposite, with majorities opposing it.

When you look in the pews, you get a representative sample of society. The problem I have with all this is, where’s the leadership of the church? I mean, thank God for the pope saying what he did recently [about abolishing the death penalty], but when’s the last time you went into a Catholic or Protestant church and heard a sermon about the death penalty or had a Sunday school class about the death penalty?

It doesn’t happen very often. There’s a real moral failure by our leaders in the church on this issue. You can’t expect the people in the pews to respond to an issue if you’re not educating them and helping them understand what the position of the church is and why it’s there, and I think, frankly, we have a huge teaching failure on the part of the leadership, of our clergy, on this issue.

Q: What should they be doing? What should pastors and their congregations be doing?

They should be preaching. They should be teaching. They should be taking people into their local prison or jail.

That’s what Jesus says to do: visit those in prison. So let’s get them in there. Let’s visit those in prison. See what happens. I found it to be not only enlightening but liberating.

Q: Where do you think the church is now on these issues broadly? Do you see any hopeful signs?

I see hopeful signs across the country. I think this is percolating as an issue like it hasn’t done in 40 years.

There’re some reasons for that. We haven’t really had a serious crime problem in 30 years, so we have these excessive punishments now for people when we don’t even have a crime problem.

So people are beginning to look around and think, “We’re spending millions of dollars on this, and to what gain?” It seems like a waste of human life and a waste of the taxpayer dollars, and that conversation is percolating all over the country.

I took a trip and visited criminal justice systems in Europe, and the Swedes are in the process of phasing out [some of] their prison system right now. I went to the maximum security prison in Sweden -- Kumla.

It’s just tundra. It’s desolate, and I go in there, and every man in that prison is in an education program or a vocational program. That person is being equipped to come back into society, because the Swedes know that they’re coming back, and when they come back, you want them to be equipped to succeed.

We have none of that going on in this country. We’re into punishing them, so when they come out, they’re even worse than they went in, usually, unless they’ve somehow transcended while this has happened to them. So it’s a whole different way of looking at corrections. Needless to say, that’s why our incarceration rate is out the roof, and the Swedes are doing away with [a number of] their prisons.

These issues are resonating throughout the country, and I think it is because there’s no crime problem, and people are beginning to realize we have a basically wasteful, inefficient, unjust system, and we need to address it. And as Bonhoeffer says, if we wait for the Christians to address it, it might not ever get done. So we’re looking for people, whatever walk of life, to help us address this problem.