By Dr. Richard Sturm, regional elder for the Northeast Region of the Christian Church
On Saturday, March 22, 2014, a Conference on Mass Incarceration was held at Park Avenue Christian Church, in New York City. This congregation, affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, was founded in 1810, and for over two centuries has been passionate about social justice. The Conference informed people about the crisis of mass incarceration. Speakers and panelists represented a wide range of involvement in the field, from the former Chairman of the New York State Board of Parole, Robert Dennison, and the Community Health Advocate for the Coming Home Program of St. Luke’s Hospital, to chaplains and church volunteers in ministry to/with the incarcerated.
Speakers at the conference identified mass incarceration as one of the United States’ most serious problems. More than 3 million people are currently behind bars and another 4 million on parole or probation. Seventy percent of the incarcerated are Black and Brown, while a prison industry prospers. Law and law enforcement is often discriminatory, and families are being broken and destroyed.
Criminalization has replaced the lynching and “Jim Crow” laws in previous eras. Those who have served time lose many of their options for employment, housing and even voting, essentially disenfranchising an entire population. For more information and facts, reference the 2013 General Assembly in Orlando Item for Reflection and Research – Incarceration, Justice and Restoration in the United States.
But systemic injustices are also under attack by religious, social, and political visionaries. Some in the Church are singing, “We Shall Overcome.” Congregations are beginning to learn new ways of reaching out to the incarcerated—without proselytizing, being judgmental, or destroying people’s self-esteem. The Church can challenge policy-makers—and take action to address the prevention of crime, provide more humane and rehabilitating treatment of the incarcerated while they are in prison, and help graduates of the American Penal System re-enter society with dignity, better chances for employment, and hope of restoring families and communities.