Interview with Amy Levad
Dr. Amy Levad is Assistant Professor at the University of St. Thomas. A YTI alumna from 1996 and former YTI staff member during her time at Candler and Emory, she received her PhD from Emory University in 2009.
Q: What got you interested in the prison system?
A: I originally became interested in the prison system when someone who is close to me was arrested and sentenced to prison for a drug offense. Coincidently, I saw the film Slam, starring Saul Williams, during the same time period. The film highlights the struggles of a young African-American man caught up in the criminal justice system for a drug offense similar to my loved one’s. While my experience of the criminal justice system was cushioned to some degree because of my loved one’s racial and class identity, this film helped me to see how this system harms people who are not white and from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds much more severely. I became personally involved through my loved one, but once exposed to the social injustices of our criminal justice systems, I could not turn away even when she escaped the system.
Q: What do you think is one of the biggest reasons why so many people are incarcerated in the United States?
A: Many people think that more people are incarcerated in the United States because of increasing crime rates over the last forty years or because we are more criminal here than in other countries. However, the data do not support these conclusions. Crime rates have fluctuated a great deal over the last four decades, and crime rates in the U.S. are not significantly different than crime rates in other similar nations. The main causes for our high incarceration rates are rooted in social injustice–economic, political, social, and cultural factors that particularly mark young, poor, African-American males as inherently criminal and dangerous and that isolate their communities with concentrated poverty, poor educational systems, and little political power. Unfortunately, responding to these social injustices by using jails, prisons, and probation tends to exacerbate these problems, creating a cycle of social injustice mediated by criminal justice systems.
Q: What do you think is the role of the Church is in responding to the problems in prisons?
A: The Church is called to recognize the image of God in every person, especially those people who are pushed to the margins of our society. Prisons and jails are about as far out to the margins of our society as we can get–and so churches should be there. I see two fronts on which the Church should approach our crises of criminal and social justice. First, we need to help reconceive how our society responds to people who commit crimes. Our criminal justice systems are currently based on retributive and punitive ideals that are not consonant with the message of forgiveness found in Christian scripture. I have found restorative justice and certain models of rehabilitation better contribute to the reincorporation of people who have committed crime back into our communities. The Church could do much more to advocate for these practices in public policy, as well as working for their implementation in local settings.
Second, we need to change the context of social injustice that our current criminal justice systems depend upon to continue to populate our prisons and jails. We need to join a social movement to end mass incarceration. This movement needs to be interfaith and ecumenical, and it needs to cross racial, ethnic, and class boundaries that often divide our churches. This social movement needs to aim towards decreasing violence in neighborhoods marked by concentrated poverty, improving educational systems for all children, providing support for struggling families, and increasing meaningful employment opportunities for all members of our communities. More fundamentally, this movement needs to address the social and cultural messages that undergird the identification of young, African-American males as criminal and dangerous. We cannot rest simply with criminal justice reform; we must reform ourselves and our communities to ensure that we uphold the image of God in every person in our midst.
Q: Can you share an experience you had working with the prison system?
A: I began working in criminal justice systems shortly after graduating college. As a Loretto Volunteer, I worked as an advocate and case manager for women arrested for prostitution in Denver. I was able to see the ins-and-outs of arraignment processes, as well as regularly go inside the Denver County Jail to speak with women there. My experience with this position showed me how vulnerable these women were, how much of their circumstances were almost entirely beyond their control, and how few resources were available to help them to choose different options. They typically had long histories of poverty and abuse that could hardly be repaired with a few months of intensive case management–and would only be exacerbated in prison or jail.
During graduate school, I was able to help create a program in Metro State Prison in Atlanta for women to earn a Certificate in Theological Studies. The program was part of a collaborative project by the Atlanta Theological Association, and it has since moved to Arrendale State Prison (Metro stopped housing women prisoners in 2011). Through this program, I got to know many of the women in Metro very well. One thing that I was honored to witness was the value that they each placed in owning and reading book. They recognized that having books is a privilege, and they took that privilege to heart–engaging thoroughly with each text, even when the books were difficult to read or challenging to long-held beliefs. For someone who always has easy access to books, my experience with these women was an important reminder to value this privilege and to use it to help people who are denied it.
Q: When writing your book, did you look to any YTI experiences?
A: I don’t think I looked to any specific YTI experience, but I would say that YTI laid important groundwork for me in terms of beginning to ask questions about power and privilege associated with race, ethnicity, and class, especially through a theological lens.