In the Image of the Triune God: A Theological Response to Solitary Confinement

Vanessa Williams, Fordham University


The purpose of this dissertation is to offer a theological challenge to the ongoing use of solitary confinement in the United States. Solitary confinement is the practice of isolating an individual in a designated, enclosed space within a larger incarceration facility. In the United States, individuals are isolated for 22 – 24 hours per day in their cells. However, even time outside of the cell for activities like showers and recreation are performed in isolation in designated areas. Although solitary confinement is a widespread practice, its ongoing use is contested. Individuals from a broad range of disciplines have reported the harms of solitary confinement and have advocated for either the elimination or reduction of the practice in the United States. I suggest that theology must also participate in this broader conversation, alongside experts in other fields. My position is that theology can offer a unique set of resources and a different perspective on the problems with solitary confinement as it is presently enforced in the United States. Furthermore, theologians have an added responsibility to participate in the reevaluation of solitary confinement because religious language and pan-Protestant theological commitments were commissioned in the initial development of solitary confinement in the United States in the 18th century. Therefore, our faith is entangled and complicit in the construction of this penological strategy. To this end of untangling Protestant theology from solitary confinement, I offer the theological contributions of Stanley J. Grenz, especially his theological anthropology, to employ a distinctly theological challenge to solitary confinement. Grenz argued that humans have the teleological purpose of bearing the image of God. Because the triune God of the Christian faith is a relational God who exists in eternal community, humans, as God’s image bearers, are also ontologically relational. Furthermore, humans’ divinely bestowed relational nature indicates that the destruction of community is contrary to human teleology and ontology, and therefore it is sin. Given this, externally enforced isolation as a penological strategy is radically incompatible with bearing God’s image. This is because solitary confinement involves categorical isolation which denies a person’s dignity as an image bearer, and it obscures one’s capacity to express said dignity. This obscuring of the image through isolation necessarily involves the destruction of community and is therefore an affront to human dignity and is a structure of sin. Accordingly, I propose that, if one takes Grenz seriously, Christians have a compelling interest in advocating for changes to the ongoing use of solitary confinement in the United States because our theology does not allow us to accept this practice as it exists today.

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Recommended Citation

Williams, Vanessa, "In the Image of the Triune God: A Theological Response to Solitary Confinement" (2020). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI27960325.