Michael Gunn Photography/Courtesy of Jia Johnson
Jia Johnson directs the Solidarity Building Initiative at Chicago's McCormick Theological Seminary. SBI offers a liberative higher education program at an Illinois county jail.

Today’s Underground Railroad: From jail to freedom with education

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Jia Johnson calls herself an abolitionist. As director of the Solidarity Building Initiative at McCormick Theological Seminary, she helps bring a liberative higher education program to those incarcerated at an Illinois county jail.

One student earned a certificate in theological studies. “Another student,” she explains, “reflected on how he saw the kingdom of God break into his daily life at the jail, creating empathy that showed up as helping a cell mate who was ill.”

Why We Wrote This

Jia Johnson has seen firsthand the hardship of incarceration on those behind bars and those back home. She’s also seen how theological education nurtures humanity – at both ends of the spectrum.

But liberative education “is not about creating model inmates,” Ms. Johnson says. It has two goals: “providing resources for intellectual and spiritual growth to men and women on the inside and disrupting the unjust economic, social, and political barriers on the outside that have resulted in our country locking up more of its citizens than any other country in the world,” she explains.

For that second goal, she and her staff have created a free, online curriculum to mobilize communities of advocacy for those who are imprisoned.

“I like to think that we are grabbing hold of the baton in the struggle for survival and liberation that our Black, brown, and white abolitionist ancestors have been passing along,” she says.

“We are finding our place on the time-honored Underground Railroad.” 

Say the word abolitionist and you might think someone is about to destroy something. But that’s not what comes to mind for Jia Johnson, who describes herself as an abolitionist. For her, the word is one of hope, an expectation that something new is about to be created.

Quan Evans experienced that kind of abolition. Old habits and perspectives gave way to new, more constructive ones when he took a theological studies course Ms. Johnson co-taught during his time in jail. 

“I really got more into reading and writing because of those classes,” says Mr. Evans, who earned a certificate in theological studies from McCormick Theological Seminary while he was incarcerated. “I even read Dr. King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ on my own time. It made me think about what I was supposed to be doing here. … You don’t bring negativity into a negative place. … You think about how you can change things.”

Why We Wrote This

Jia Johnson has seen firsthand the hardship of incarceration on those behind bars and those back home. She’s also seen how theological education nurtures humanity – at both ends of the spectrum.

That change in perspective is one of the outcomes Ms. Johnson hopes for in her work as director of the Solidarity Building Initiative (SBI), McCormick Theological Seminary’s liberative higher education program at an Illinois county jail. Her second, longer-term goal is to “end the harm that the current [carceral] system inflicts on individuals and, in turn, our society.”

Liberative education, Ms. Johnson explains, “is not about creating model inmates, but about providing resources for intellectual and spiritual growth to men and women on the inside and disrupting the unjust economic, social, and political barriers on the outside that have resulted in our country locking up more of its citizens than any other country in the world.”

“The ending of slavery didn’t create a new and just beginning,” Ms. Johnson adds. “We went from chattel slavery to Black Codes to convict leasing to Jim Crow to today’s system of mass incarceration that disproportionally impacts the poor and Black and brown persons.”

The ripple effect of imprisonment

This work is personal for Ms. Johnson. A native of El Paso, Texas, she first encountered the criminal legal system seven years ago when her brother spent a year and a half in jail. “The trauma was not only his, but it also impacted the entire family,” she says. “The one thing that gave me hope was watching God meet my brother and other men detained in that carceral setting. A spiritual community of support and encouragement formed that was crucial for survival and healing in an institution that’s not designed for flourishing.”

Ms. Johnson began to imagine how this kind of support could be duplicated. A couple of years later, she found herself in Chicago, working on a master’s degree in public ministry at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and managing a nonprofit program that offered entrepreneurial training, including to those who had been incarcerated. During this time, she also co-taught the 10-week course on theological reflection that Mr. Evans took.  

As the teachers shared thoughts from theologians such as James Cone, Andrew Sung Park, and Daniel Erlander, the impact quickly became apparent. “I could see that students were connecting what they were learning … to their lived experience,” she says. “One student shared how this experience provided skills for mending fractured relationships. Another student reflected on how he saw the kingdom of God break into his daily life at the jail, creating empathy that showed up as helping a cell mate who was ill. In the past, he noted, it was not always his first thought to consider the needs of others over his own.”

Students encouraged the teachers to return, and the next session featured guest lecturers – including an adjunct faculty member at a Chicago-area university and entrepreneurs – all of whom were formerly incarcerated. “Every student referenced the profound impact these individuals had made,” says Ms. Johnson. “One student wrote, ‘I had been afraid of going to college and seeking higher learning. It turns out I was afraid of something that wasn’t to be feared.’ Another student wondered out loud how different his life might have been had he met one of these lecturers before the events that led to his pretrial detention.” 

“I was witnessing what much of the research indicates,” says Ms. Johnson. “Education, especially higher education, is a pathway to decreasing recidivism and disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. One student lamented the reality that he had received a better education in four years of pretrial detention than he did in his four years of high school. I was realizing that academic institutions can help ensure that the right to an education includes people who are incarcerated.” 

Expanding efforts to challenge the system

Over the past year, Ms. Johnson’s role with SBI has expanded. She is now forming a collective of academic institutions, community organizers, and formerly incarcerated activists that, together, might be able to disrupt what she calls “a system of perpetual harm.”

Last summer, after learning about the initiative, a pastor who is also a trustee at an academic institution asked Ms. Johnson to partner with his Minneapolis church to offer a series of webinars – open to the public – on criminal justice, the church, and the disconnects between the two. 

“Someone at a high level within an academic institution used his power to bring this issue before not only a congregation, but anyone who wanted to learn and enter the online dialogue about what can be done,” says Ms. Johnson. “That’s how this work is moved forward.”

In that series of webinars, incarcerated students shared excerpts from their papers. “I wanted our conversations to be firmly rooted in the here and now of people who I knew and loved,” Ms. Johnson explains.

Now, she has a more extensive way to share this information. Earlier this year, she and her staff created a free online, public education curriculum that is inspiring and mobilizing people to create communities of advocacy for those who are imprisoned. “I like to think that we are grabbing hold of the baton in the struggle for survival and liberation that our Black, brown, and white abolitionist ancestors have been passing along,” Ms. Johnson says.

“We are finding our place on the time-honored Underground Railroad.” 

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