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.

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Now United Methodists and United Church of Christ are teaming up to promote a new documentary, produced by the Beyond Barscampaign, 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.)

After stepping down from the job he once coveted, Shipp continued to receive letters alerting him to the results of cases that were pending when he left. One day he opened a letter congratulating him on an appeals case he had won. The case was that of a young woman named Cyntoia Brown.

Devastated, Shipp realized that he had played a decisive role in what he now viewed as an unjust sentence for his young friend. At the time he’d worked on the case, Brown’s name was just one among hundreds. He did not remember it when he met her in person. But now that name was a human being dear to him, whose forgiveness he hoped to earn.

Shipp now tries lawyers charged with ethics violations and advocates for reform in the criminal justice system.

The premiere of Redemption of the Prosecutor was the first of 100 screenings that will take place for congregations nationwide. The goal for these screenings is to be a first step toward making mass incarceration an organizing focus in churches across the country.

Jesse Lava is directing the campaign for Beyond Bars, a project of the Brave New Foundation, which is the organization behind the documentaries Outfoxed and Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price.

Lava says Beyond Bars was recently successful in convincing the New York State legislature to devote an additional $7 million to Alternative To Incarceration programs, which include rehab and job training.

The group was also instrumental in assisting Florida Atlantic University students in waging a campaign to stop the school from allowing Geo Group, a private prison company with a notoriously bad record of human rights abuses, to sponsor a new stadium.

These are the kinds of projects Beyond Bars, the United Methodists and United Church of Christ want to get churchgoers involved with, in addition to tackling youth sentencing and other policies within the criminal justice system itself.

Lava says Beyond Bars initially reached out to Christian organizations because, “These are folks who are strongly linked in a community and thus can educate and engage each other on political issues. And the moral nature of these communities makes justice work a perfect fit.”

In a panel discussion following the premiere screening, Preston Shipp acknowledged that one piece of the puzzle is educating people about mass incarceration. Most will agree there’s a problem when they learn that the United States accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, but locks up 25% of the world’s prisoners.

However, Shipp emphasized that firing up Christians to take action is going to require getting them out of the pews and out of their comfort zones. When he talks to folks about the issues, he encourages them to visit prisons and form relationships with the people who have to live in them. He says that does more to turn people into activists than any academic or political conversation.

“It’s hard to feel compassion for a statistic,” he says. “It’s hard for me to love someone I don’t know. But when I get to know someone, it’s hard for me not to love them.”

Amen to that.

Editor's Note: To get involved in the Beyond Bars campaign, visit Watch the trailer and sign up for a free DVD to schedule a screening in your community.

Anna Simonton is a filmmaker, freelance writer, and a spring 2013 intern at the Nation magazine.