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College of Wooster's Spring Academy of Religion Examines Failing U.S. Prison System

UPublish story by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Can a nation founded on the principles of justice and human rights possibly undo the failings of an inefficient and ineffective prison system by turning to the fundamental tenets of its faith traditions?

The 47th Spring Academy of Religion will address that question and a host of others when it presents “Bars to Our Humanity: The United States Prison System,” a five-part lecture series that begins next month at The College of Wooster. The sessions will take place in Lean Lecture Room of Wishart Hall (303 E. University St.) from 7:30-9:30 p.m. every Thursday from April 11-May 9.

“We should be concerned about a system that is unjust in terms of who is penalized and who is not, and by the denial of human rights to those who are reclassified from citizen to prisoner,” said Charles Kammer, professor of religious studies at Wooster and academic dean of the academy. “All faith traditions are grounded in principles of forgiveness and reconciliation. They all proclaim the indelible worth of each human being regardless of what he or she has done. Each describes a transcendent power that seeks to heal and reconcile individuals and communities. Our goal should be interventions that prevent crime, not mass incarcerations that actually contribute to the problem.”

In the Christian tradition, for example, Kammer noted that concern for the imprisoned is fundamental to the faith. “Jesus proclaims ‘release to the captives’ and declares that salvation depends upon visiting those in prison,” he said. “In this series, we hope to bring into view both the victims of crime and the perpetrators, both the innocent who are imprisoned and the guilty and think together about how we might reform or recreate our justice system so that outcomes can be restorative of persons and communities.”

In addition to the role of religion in restoration and rehabilitation of those who are imprisoned, the series will also address such questions as Why does the U.S. have the world’s highest rate of incarceration? Why are so many nonviolent offenders imprisoned? and What roles do poverty, race, education, and mental illness play in the probability that an individual will wind up in prison?

The series begins on Thursday, April 11, when Jennifer Graber, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Texas and a former member of the faculty at Wooster presents “Christians, Prisons, and the Impulse to Reform Punishment.”

The following week (April 18), James Logan, associate professor of religion and director of African and African American Studies at Earlham College, will present “Healing Memory, Ontological Intimacy, and U. S. Imprisonment: Toward a Christian Politics of ‘Good Punishment’ in Civil Society.”

The third lecture will feature the Reverend Janet Wolf, national coordinator of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Alex Haley Farm and Nonviolent Struggle, presenting “The Monster That Eats Children: America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline” on April 25.

Anne Nurse, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Wooster and author of Fatherhood Arrested: Parenting from Within the Juvenile Justice System, will speak at the fourth lecture on May 2 when she presents, “Questions of Ethics and Effectiveness in the Handling of Troubled Youth.”

The series concludes on May 9 when Kammer, the James F. Lincoln Professor of Religious Studies at Wooster, presents “From Retribution to Restoration: Healing Souls and Systems.”

Additional information about the Spring Academy of Religion lecture series is available by phone (330-263-2129) or e-mail (

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