Raphael G. Warnock

Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, presented a lecture on mass incarceration in Harvard’s Memorial Church.

Photos by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Campus & Community

Reforming the criminal justice system

6 min read

Atlanta preacher takes aim at nation’s prisons

For Raphael G. Warnock, the work of helping reform the nation’s criminal-justice system is deeply personal. His older brother Keith, a first-time offender, was sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug-related offense in 1997.

“He is a veteran of the first Gulf War and has been a model prisoner, no easy feat amid the challenges of prison life, since his incarceration 22 years ago,” said Warnock during a campus talk Wednesday evening. “Yet it is the stigma of color and criminality that makes his story not as uncommon as one might think.”

In a discussion at Harvard’s Memorial Church, the Atlanta preacher called mass incarceration “a scandal on the soul of America” and challenged his listeners to “imagine a different future.” An activist and pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. served until his death in 1968, Warnock said the issue is the nation’s most pressing civil rights problem and that finding ways to stop a system rooted in slavery that disproportionately locks up men of color is a moral imperative. According to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy center, people of color make up 37 percent of the nation’s population but 67 percent of inmates in prison.

Warnock delivered his message during the first of four William Belden Noble lectures that will continue through April. The series, founded in 1898 through a bequest of Nannie Yulee Noble in memory of her husband, has featured various prominent thinkers, civic leaders, writers, and artists through the years, including Theodore Roosevelt, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, and Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, as well as author Marilynne Robinson, former special assistant to President Barack Obama Joshua DuBois, and documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson.

Over the next several months, Warnock will return to campus for three lectures that will address voting rights and voter disenfranchisement, poverty, and climate change.

Kaia Stern and Raphael Warnock of Atlanta.
The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock (right) answers a question from a student at the Memorial Church. The Q&A session was moderated by Kaia Stern (left), director of Harvard’s Prison Studies Project.

Many experts attribute the nation’s soaring prison population to Bill Clinton’s $30 billion crime bill signed into law in 1994 that included tougher prison sentences and more money to build prisons. Others see its roots in the war on drugs waged by President Richard Nixon, who introduced the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, aimed at getting drugs and those selling them off the streets. That law swelled the nation’s prison population and was expanded a decade later by President Ronald Reagan. Some, including Harvard’s Elizabeth Hinton, trace its beginnings back to the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, whose progressive social agenda became entwined with his anti-crime programs. When numerous programs run by social workers were defunded, the police took on the role of administering them. The shift gave law enforcement “more and more opportunities to supervise a population they saw as troublesome,” Hinton, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, told the Gazette in 2016.

Warnock sees the current crisis as an extension of slavery and the laws created to enforce segregation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He cited the work of author Michelle Alexander, who argues the “mass incarceration of tens of thousands of black men for nonviolent, drug-related offenses and the lifelong consequences that result are constituent parts of the new Jim Crow” that denies them their right to citizenship, their right to vote, opportunity, upward social mobility, and more.

“I agree,” said Warnock.

The dilemmais also a failing of communities of faith that have too long remained silent, he said, urging churches to get more directly involved and noting that their pastoral care and spiritual guidance of those who are now or were formerly incarcerated doesn’t touch the root of the problem. Real change, he said requires, a fundamental challenge to the current political system, and a “national multifaith movement.”

“I am clear that 50 years from now … our children, our grandchildren are going to ask us, ‘What were you doing while this human rights nightmare unfolded on your watch?’”

Raphael G. Warnock

To jump-start that campaign Warnock co-sponsored “Let My People Go!,” a multifaith conference in June that brought together people from different backgrounds and religious traditions to explore practical ways to make change in a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world. A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that as of 2016 almost 2.2 million Americans were in prison or jail. As part of the conference, the organizers developed online guides and materials aimed at helping people develop strategic legislative agendas at the local, state, and national levels, organize an interfaith network of partners focused on abolishing mass incarceration, and create a media strategy that can reframe public understanding of the problem.

“This national effort, taken on in partnership with others, builds upon years of advocacy and activism,” and seeks to change a system too often “more criminal than just,” said Warnock.

After delivering his remarks, Warnock engaged in a conversation with Kaia Stern, M.T.S. ’99, RI ’19, the director of Harvard’s Prison Studies Project, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s first practitioner-in-residence. At Radcliffe, Stern is working on a new initiative on law, justice, and education with an approach she calls “transformative justice.”

Stern posed questions to Warnock written by her students, some of whom wanted to know what direct actions they could take. Warnock encouraged them to consider helping create voting precincts inside county jails as a way of ensuring more people’s voices count in elections. (The vast majority of states prohibit jailed felons from voting, but often those being held are awaiting trial or have been convicted of only misdemeanors and so are still eligible to vote in many states.) His church, he said, has also sponsored expungement events during which they were able to clear the records of those with minor offenses, and he urged the audience to get involved in similar efforts.

The key, said Warnock, is to act.

“I am clear that 50 years from now … our children, our grandchildren are going to ask us, ‘What were you doing while this human rights nightmare unfolded on your watch?’”

The second in the series of the Memorial Church’s William Belden Noble Lectures will be Nov. 20. The lectures were established in 1898 by Nannie Yulee Noble in memory of her husband. Subsequent lectures are scheduled for March 11 and April 22.