Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores

The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated. We have more people locked up in jails, prisons, and detention centers than any other country in the history of the world. There are more jails and prisons than degree-granting colleges and universities, and in many places more people live behind bars than on college campuses. Mass incarceration has become a lucrative industry, and the criminal justice system is plagued with bias and unjust practices. And the church has unwittingly contributed to these problems.

In Rethinking Incarceration Dominique Gilliard explores the history and foundation of mass incarceration, examining Christianity’s role in its evolution and expansion. He assesses our nation’s ethic of meritocratic justice in light of Scripture and exposes the theologies that embolden mass incarceration. Gilliard then shows how Christians can pursue justice that restores and reconciles, offering creative solutions and highlighting innovative interventions. God’s justice is ultimately restorative, not just punitive. Discover how Christians can participate in the restoration and redemption of the incarceration system.


Rethinking Incarceration received a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly, who said “This is an outstanding addition to this incredibly important conversation.”

Rethinking Incarceration won the 2018 InterVarsity Press Reader’s Choice Book of the Year Award.

Rethinking Incarceration was named as one of Outreach Magazine’s 2019 Resources of the Year.

Order your copy here.


In his debut, Gilliard, an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor, builds on the work of Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), and Christopher D. Marshall (Compassionate Justice) to create a readable narrative history of racialized incarceration in the U.S. Gilliard depicts the modern incarceration culture as being so painful and brutal that “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory/ When is it gonna get me?” He opens with the horrific murder of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in 2006 by Atlanta police officers who conspired to hide their crime, and then goes on to survey the history of mass incarceration, including “black codes” (restrictive laws passed in the late 19th century), convict leasing, and modern prison labor. First, he deconstructs American evangelicals’ fascination with “law and order” and theology of penal substitution. Second, building on fine biblical interpretation, he provides a theology that emphasizes restorative justice. He also takes the church to task for failing to “reckon with the reality that ever since black people were stolen from Africa and trafficked to this land, they have been dehumanized, abused, criminalized, incarcerated, exploited for profit, and governed in distinctively sinister ways.” This is an outstanding addition to this incredibly important conversation. Publishers Weekly

“In this stunning book that moves your heart, mind, and soul, Dominique Gilliard dissects mass incarceration and the narrative that helped create it. He shows with precision that slavery did not end, it just evolved. If you’ve ever doubted that sin is not just personal but also systemic, read this book. Dominique helps light the way forward away from the punitive justice that is crushing two million people today and toward the restorative justice at the heart of the Christian faith, the stuff the gospel is made of—where there is healing for both the victims and the victimizers, where the captives are set free, the yokes of oppression are crushed, and grace gets the last word.” Shane Claiborne, author and activist

“From slavery through Jim Crow to mass incarceration the confinement and control of black bodies in the U.S. has always been the heartbeat of the Republic’s strategy to maintain white dominion. Twisted theologies grew like hedges of support and wicked webs of justification for crimes against the humanity of African peoples. White supremacy’s most long-standing strategy has largely stayed in tact because we have not cut down its supports at the root. Dominique Gilliard’s Rethinking Incarceration chops at the roots of mass incarceration by challenging the theological premises upon which it rests. Gilliard’s exacting historical lens combines with masterful biblical work to unravel and uproot the hedges of support for mass incarceration while painting a new theological vision of reform and redemption in the U.S. This is a must read.” Lisa Sharon Harper

“Dominique DuBois Gilliard calls for a holy disruption of the systems and pipelines that imprison mostly black and brown people in the United States’ mass-incarceration-industrial complex. Rethinking Incarceration exposes the ways the church has been complicit in this injustice and invites people of faith to engage in justice that is restorative. This book is historical, theological, scholarly, accessible, pastoral, and prophetic. It should be read in the seminary and university classroom, the pastor’s study, and the church book club. Gilliard offers a very relevant word for one of the most central issues of our time!” Curtiss Paul DeYoung, CEO, Minnesota Council of Churches

“An astonishing book—full of insights that draw from history, politics, social research, and Scripture. Gilliard crafts a compelling picture that links local policy and decisions and shows the impact on a national scale. This book is a thought-provoking call to the church to take a practical role in engaging with mass incarceration and its effects.” Nikki Toyama-Szeto, executive director, Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA)

“Walking in the footsteps of Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson, Dominique Gilliard lays out here the history and structure of mass incarceration in the United States, touching on all its sinister complications and biases; the equally sinister theological and scriptural moves that have accompanied it; and, most important of all, the powerful alternative vision and program that the church can—and must—now embody as it begins to dismantle this horror. A sustained, passionate, prophetic, and constructive work.” Douglas A. Campbell, professor of New Testament, Divinity School,  Duke University

“The church in the age of mass incarceration has too often been enslaved to a theology that makes sense of systemic oppression and human negation. Dominique Gilliard has gifted us with a robust and clarifying theology of the body and the church, pointing us in the direction of liberation, not just for the incarcerated, but also a church bound by chains of human hierarchy.” Michael McBride, National Director of PICO Network Urban Strategies and LIVE FREE Campaign

“In a time of great anxiety, knowledge and wisdom are desperately needed. In Rethinking Incarceration, Dominique Gilliard provides well-researched content as well as insightful stories that provide the essential foundation for a long overdue dialogue on mass incarceration. The church needs this primer on the history of incarceration in the United States and needs to hear the cogent theological analysis and response that is offered. This text should now be required reading for any thinking and feeling American Christians who wants to engage the topic of mass incarceration in a meaningful way.” Soong-Chan Rah, author of The Next Evangelicalism and Prophetic Lament

“This is the book I’ve been waiting for. Since the publication of The New Jim Crow, we have needed an analysis of incarceration and justice from a Christian perspective. Rethinking Incarceration is a powerful book that needs to circulate widely, for in it we learn not only of the issues, but how to move forward for desperately needed restorative change.” Michael O. Emerson, provost and professor, North Park University, author of Divided by Faith

“This book is quick, informative, and deeply transformational. Our understanding of the human condition, notions of punishment and reform, and the nature of God are all at stake in Dominique Gilliard’s theological and passionately argued work. Gilliard expertly traces our complicated relationship with prisons and mass incarceration through poignant historical analysis and compelling biblical argumentation. Rethinking Incarceration has the rare power to change the church in America.” Ken Wytsma, author of The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege

“Dominique gives a thorough, honest look at the history of mass incarceration, blending advocacy and theology and driving us to respond as a community of faith. This is a must-read from a leader whose passion inspires hope.” Leroy Barber, Voices Project, board chair of Missio Alliance, author of Embrace

“Dominique DuBois Gilliard’s book is both hopeful and tough. The social and historical analysis is filled with hard truths. Incarceration in the United States cannot be separated from our racial history of the slavocracy in its former and contemporary forms. Gilliard writes to all who are deeply committed to embodying Christian understanding of justice, mercy, and restoration. . . . If you have ever taken time to notice the injustices that permeate our system of justice and have been brokenhearted by the abuses, racism, and privilege that doles out prison sentences to some and offers grace to others, you will be challenged by Rethinking Incarceration.” Phillis Isabella Sheppard, associate professor of religion, psychology, and culture, Vanderbilt University Divinity School

“Readers will gain a holistic overview of past and present complexities concerning mass incarceration, and be encouraged toward future engagement with people at-risk or affected by them, in ways that are merciful, empathetic and just.” Mark DeYmaz, an author,  founding pastor of Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas, and cofounder and president of Mosaix Global Network.

institutions of higher education who have used Rethinking Incarceration as a core text:

Wheaton College Graduate School 
Azusa Pacific University
Fuller Theological Seminary 
Fresno Pacific University 
Howard Divinity School 
Shaw Divinity School
North Park Theological Seminary 
Houghton College
Mid-America Christian University
North Park University 
Kilns College 
Point Loma Nazarene University
Delta State University 
Eastern Nazarene College
Cornerstone University 
UNC Charlotte
Nyack College
Mercyhurst University 
University of Northwestern in St Paul