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In America, Criminal Justice System Needs Redemption More Than the Prisoners

The new documentary, "Redemption of the Prosecutor," is a first step toward making mass incarceration an organizing focus in churches across the country.

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Stories involving Christian faith and prisoners usually go something like this: a person commits a terrible crime, goes to prison, finds Jesus, changes his or her ways for the better, the end.

Now United Methodists and United Church of Christ are teaming up to promote a new documentary, produced by the Beyond Bars campaign, that flips the typical redemption story on its head. In Redemption of the Prosecutor, it’s not the prisoner, but the criminal justice system that needs redeeming.

The film tells the story of Preston Shipp, a Tennessee native who had his whole career mapped out from a young age: he would go to law school, work as a prosecutor and eventually become a judge. His plans were right on track when he was hired as an assistant attorney general in 2004. With a happy marriage, three kids and a strong church community, the successful career move solidified his sense of fulfillment.

But Shipp's assuredness gradually waned as he settled into the job of a state prosecutor. His caseload was enormous. He was rarely in court; more often he made his arguments on paper in what felt like an assembly-line process. The nature of the work fostered a machine-like indifference to the people whose freedom he argued against, a feeling that troubled Shipp.

“When the only information you receive about a person is the worst thing they’ve ever done, it’s very easy to regard them as less than human,” Shipp explains in the film. “How can I reconcile the job I was asked to do as a prosecutor with my faith in Jesus, who came proclaiming release for prisoners?”

His inner conflict came to a head in 2008 when he began teaching a course at Lipscomb University that took students off campus to a women’s prison where they held classes with inmates.

“That’s when I started hearing their stories,” Shipp says. “The more I got to know the women, the more hypocritical I felt.”

Shipp formed a strong friendship with one particularly bright, incarcerated student named Cyntoia Brown. At first, all Shipp knew about her history was that she had murdered a man when she was 16 years old. This fact seemed at odds with the charismatic, inquisitive young woman he knew her to be. As their friendship developed she shared more of her story with him.

Abandoned by her mother at a young age, Brown’s early teen years were marked by instability. By 16 she was working for a small-time pimp. One night in August 2004, a real estate agent picked Brown up and took her to his apartment where he showed off his gun collection and became increasingly belligerent. Shipp doesn’t explain all the details of what happened, and maybe he doesn’t know them, but by the end of their encounter the real estate agent was dead with gunshot wounds to the back of his head, and Brown was on the run.

When the law caught up to Brown it showed her no mercy. She was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. She will be eligible for parole in 2055, when she is 67 years old.

“She’s more than the worst thing she ever did,” Shipp says of Brown. “She’s as articulate and smart and funny as any student in my class…the system didn’t recognize the enormous potential that she had and threw away this person who has so much to offer.”

Riddled with doubt about the morality of his work, Shipp’s relationship with Brown was the catalyst for his decision to resign from his position with the attorney general’s office in 2009. (Spoiler Alert: if you plan on watching the film and don’t want to know the ironic twist that follows, read no further.)