Ending Mass Incarceration: The Ongoing Call to Faith Communities

Ending Mass Incarceration: The Ongoing Call to Faith Communities November 2, 2015

by Janis Rosheuvel, Pastor Lilian Amaya and Lissette Castillo Vizcarra

left to right: Janis Rosheuvel, executive secretary for racial justice for United Methodist Women; Sally Dyck, Bishop of Northern Illinois Conference United Methodist Church; Page May, We Charge Genocide; and Lisette Castillo Vizcarro.  They were panelists at a town hall on mass incarceration and policing co-sponsored by United Methodist Women as part of its national social justice training event, “Interrupting Indifference: Jesus, Justice and Joy,” July 29-Aug. 2 at the University of Chicago. credit: Robert Macabuhay
left to right: Janis Rosheuvel, executive secretary for racial justice for United Methodist Women; Sally Dyck, Bishop of Northern Illinois Conference United Methodist Church; Page May, We Charge Genocide; and Lisette Castillo Vizcarro. They were panelists at a town hall on mass incarceration and policing co-sponsored by United Methodist Women as part of its national social justice training event, “Interrupting Indifference: Jesus, Justice and Joy,” July 29-Aug. 2 at the University of Chicago.
credit: Robert Macabuhay

The crisis of incarceration this nation now faces demands people of faith act with swift and fierce moral authority to transform, not just reform, an irreparably broken system. It demands that all of us—clergy, seminarians, teachers, and people in pews, mosques and temples— provoke a revolution of values that strikes at the heart of mass incarceration. Without exception, we believers are required to realize a just world. This is our call, and we are falling short when it comes to how we treat those in jails, prisons and detention centers.

Thanks to powerful community organizing and mobilization many more people are cognizant of why mass incarceration must end. Many of us already know the numbers: 2.3 million human beings locked down, as many as 9 million under some form of correctional control, including parole, probation or awaiting their day in court and almost 500,000 people passing through civil immigration detention annually. Growing numbers of us—particularly if we are poor, female, Black, Brown, immigrant, and or have mental health conditions—are facing incarceration or have loved ones who are. We know that the U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation on earth, approximately 700 persons per every 100,000. And we know that the racially biased “War on Drugs” has in the past 40 years incarcerated hundreds of millions of people for largely nonviolent drug offenses, tearing families asunder in the process.

Dr. Iva Carruthers, General Secretary of the Chicago-based Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and a leading voice in the faith community calling for an end to mass incarceration, says that we are in effect “a nation in chains.” If Dr. Carruthers is right, and she is, people of faith are being called to reject the dangerous mythologizes about why so many mainly poor Black and Brown people are incarcerated in the first place. Despite public perceptions, poor people of color are not more likely to use or sell drugs than their white counterparts. So what explains the disproportionate ways we are locked up?

To begin with, we are seeing the devastating results of the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the past four decades. Public policies like “stop-and-frisk,” “broken windows” promote over policing of minor offenses, which are the gateway to incarceration. Even as we write this piece, the nation is watching the unfolding of yet another case in which a young Black woman, Sandra Bland of Chicago, who ends up arrested, assaulted and dead in a jail cell after being stopped by a policeman in Texas for changing lanes without signaling while driving home from a job interview. “Zero tolerance” policing, the mass detention and deportation of millions of immigrants and a congressional bed quota mandate that requires immigrant detention centers to hold 34,000 people in the system each night, have all created a pipeline that forces targeted communities into a system not about rehabilitation, reconciliation and restitution, but about the social control of Black and Brown bodies. Indeed, the same companies that profit from the criminalization and mass incarceration of Black and Brown people, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, are reaping record profits at the expense of these chronically dehumanized and marginalized communities. In 2014 alone, these two corporations made nearly $470 million in revenue.

The historic and pervasive criminalization of communities of color in the United States is a key building block of the current system of mass incarceration. As author and scholar Michelle Alexander deftly lays out in her seminal work The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, mass incarceration is largely about continuing to ensure the nation has a permanent, subservient and disenfranchised underclass whose very bodies and movement are caged and controlled. As Alexander has said, “Once you are labeled a felon you’re trapped for the rest of your life and subject to many of the old forms of discrimination in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, school applications…Those labeled felons are even denied the right to vote.” And for immigrants, the reality of interacting with the criminal justice system often means entering a treacherous path toward, criminal incarceration, immigration detention, eventual deportation and a permanent bar to rejoining family in the United States.

Faith communities have been doing good work to resist mass incarceration: sponsoring conferences, reading, writing, visiting those in prison and more. Still more is required of us. We must LISTEN to those most impacted by the current crisis—people in jails, prisons, immigrant detention centers and their families. We must hear their stories without judgement or false moralizing. And we must listen to the solutions they have developed to resist and upend these oppressive systems. They must lead us. We must also continue to EDUCATE our communities and leaders about the current realities of the system. But it is not enough to raise consciousness we must also use our moral voice to regularly interrupt the ongoing harm that unjust socio-economic and political systems cause. And we must ACT/RESIST in ways that undermine business as usual. Street protests? Policy reform? Anti-racism workshops? Mobilizing alongside impacted communities? Transformation will not happen unless our actions engage these and many more forms of resistance. This is our call.

Janis Rosheuvel serves as executive secretary for racial justice for United Methodist Women.  Prior to United Methodist Women, Janis worked in the fields of international development and gender rights. Rosheuvel was awarded a Fullbright Scholarship from 2011-12 to South Africa where she documented the work of social movements organized by working class activists.

Pastor Lilian Amaya, is Director of Haziel Ministry and a leader with the Chicago Religious Leadership Network (CRLN). Pastor Amaya has visited prisons and detention centers in Arizona and is a regular volunteer with the unaccompanied Children’s Interfaith Ministry in Chicago.

Lissette Castillo Vizcarra, is the CRLN immigration organizer who works in solidarity with those oppressed by poverty, violence and exclusion. Castillo Vizcarra helps equip and mobilize religious leaders, communities and individuals to advance peace, justice and human rights.

Photo credit: Robert Macabuhay


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4 responses to “Ending Mass Incarceration: The Ongoing Call to Faith Communities”

  1. Hello charlesburchfield, Thank you for reaching out! Resources are important when becoming an advocate for a movement. One place you can start is at the United Methodist Women’s website: http://www.unitedmethodistwomen.org/what-we-do/service-and-advocacy/mass-incarceration This page gives an overview, Mass Incarceration 101. Another place for resources about how to get involved in ending mass incarceration comes from American Friends Service Committee: http://afsc.org/key-issues/issue/ending-mass-incarceration , Anissa New-Walker, PR and marketing consultant for United Methodist Women.

  2. “Public policies like “stop-and-frisk,” “broken windows” promote over policing of minor offenses”

    Don’t forget today’s proliferation artificially-forced interactions with police due to municipal greed. When young (and I am old), the police were public servants and were considered nearly analogous to clergy in that the reached out to those in need. They drove entry-level Dodges or Crown Vics more spartan than a taxi, and they patrolled and served. Today, police departments have become a primary source of revenue from traffic fines and court fees, and the police officers themselves survive by their stats as if sports figures — number of citations, number of arrests. They now drive $70K Suburbans outfitted as if the Secret Service.

    And, unsurprisingly, many they cite are unable to afford the fines (and tacked-on) court costs, or an attorney to plea it down to “improper equipment”, and resultantly end up with an outstanding arrest warrant. Also, unsurprisingly, pull over enough people day by day, hour by hour, and a finite percentage won’t have the skill set necessary to deal with the interaction. After all, it was likely over a $0.50 #1157 taillight lamp that they couldn’t afford $30 to have replaced.

    So we end up with another Ferguson where 21,000 residents had 16,000 outstanding arrest warrants.

  3. demands people of faith act with swift and fierce moral authority

    There goes another irony-meter.

    Because the prison-industrial-complex is rooted in secular values, right? Right?