Recently, I interviewed Bill Wakefield, a member of the Mass Incarceration Task Force about their initiative to have congregations in our Presbytery participate in learning more about the issue of Mass Incarceration. Here is that interview:
Beth: Tell me how the work of the Mass Incarceration Task Force is going.
Bill: We’ve got 11 churches plus the Presbytery Women who have scheduled some kind of program with us.
Beth: What kinds of programs are you offering?
Bill: We offered to provide the sermon or an adult education, or a hybrid of the two. Some churches have wanted a more formal power point kind of presentation. Some have wanted a more informal conversation. In a couple instances, we’re bringing someone who is formerly incarcerated to tell their story and then create a dialogue around that presentation. In one context, the pastor is interviewing a formerly incarcerated individual alongside a person from the task force. We’re really open to fitting the program around the context of the church.
Beth: What will your presentations cover?
Bill: So there are three phases of incarceration: Pre-incarceration, Incarceration and Post-incarceration.
When we present or discuss pre-incarceration, we’re talking about keeping youth out of the path of incarceration. And we’ll talk about sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums and also the sentencing of prison and/or rehabilitation.
When we talk about the Incarceration phase, we’re presenting on issues like training and education, how we are preparing folks to re-enter the world. We want to talk about the treatment of prisoners, particularly the consequences of solitary confinement. And how do we get away from punishment as a default understanding of prison and head toward rehabilitation as our understanding.
In the post-incarceration phase, we begin to talk about the impact on communities and families (although that’s part of the issue the in all three phases). There is a 75% recidivism rate in the United States. How do we support formerly incarcerated individuals and the communities where they find a job and choose to live. And then we begin to see the issues surrounding how formerly incarcerated individuals are labeled after they are free.
Beth: Tell me more about that.
Bill: So, let’s take a man who has served your full term in jail. In other words, he wasn’t let out on patrol. So theoretically he has paid his debt to society. But he is still a felon. And even if you have paid your debt, you are a felon forever. This means you can’t get a license to practice certain professions – like a barber or hairdresser for example. So you’re limited to what jobs you can have. You also can’t live in public housing. So, imagine his family moved into public housing when he was in prison, now he can’t move back with his family.
Beth: Once folks learn more about the issue, then what?
Bill: We’ve compiled a list of organizations that work in these different phases of Incarceration. Congregation can choose which way they would like to serve. We’ll provide that as part of our Presentation.
Beth: What else would you want to make sure folks in Presbytery know?
Bill:Some statistics for you, if you are 10-15 years old and black, odds are 1 in 3 that you will end up in prison. If you are white, it’s 1 in 17. If you are latino, 1 in 6.
But it’s not just the number of incarcerated individuals, there are economic implications here. The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. That’s 5 times that of the United Kingdom. Financially, on a national average, it costs $35K/ person (it costs almost double that in NJ).
And there are incentives for keeping people incarcerated. There’s is a lot of money being made in this industry. For example, there are rural towns that survive on the finances created by the prison that was built in that town. They need to keep it open. In order to keep it open, we need prisoners.
And I’d be wrong to say there has not been progress. There has. NJ has decreased our prison population. We just need more progress.
Beth: How can people contact members of the task force to engage with you?
Bill: There are nine folks on the task force who have been calling churches in our Presbytery. You can contact any of them and they will help find the right program for you.
- Bill Wakefield, Nassau
- Sam Bonner, Covenant
- Jan Everett, Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville
- Barbara Fleiff, Witherspoon
- Karen Hernandez-Granzen, Westminster
- David McAlpen, Nassau and Witherspoon
- Paul Rhebergen, Ewing
- Ted SEttle, Bound Brook
- Jonathan Schenk, Nassau
- Wendi Werner, Dayton