Info from the Mass Incarceration Task Force

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



4 Comments Add yours

  1. Joe says:

    Interesting that all the stats and colorful graphics surrounds race and sex with regards to mass incarceration. I would love to ask Bill the following questions:

    If poverty among blacks is because of whites and racism, why has the poverty rate among black married couples been in single digits every year since 1994, despite far higher poverty rates among other blacks?
    When the imprisonment rate of blacks with a college education is a fraction of the imprisonment rate of other blacks, does that mean that white cops check out the education of blacks before they decide to arrest them?

    Fact of the matter is that poverty and incarceration is vastly lower among ALL racial groups for married couples or those with an education.

    Common sense tells us that a married couple is far likely to be stronger economically than a single person, on average. There are always exceptions of course, but marriage is one factor that improves ones financial situation. Simply put, two individuals in a marriage can make ends meet more effectively than an individual living alone. Why should race have any effect on this either way?

    Looking at the second question, there is no doubt that the more educated African-Americans are, the less likely they are to be arrested or spend time in prison or jail. And it really isn’t because cops ask blacks if they have a college degree before they take out the cuffs and read them their rights. It’s clearly because the more educated blacks, or whites or members of any other race are, the more likely they are to make better decisions, and avoid the decisions and behaviors that lead to getting arrested and possibly going to jail. Isn’t that common sense as well?

    I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist. But rather if you want to truly discuss mass incarceration, rather than looking at it simplistically via racial glasses alone one must look at many other factors. Let’s discuss school choice for example as a means of alternative education. How about discussing how the welfare state discourages marriages and encourages illegitimacy. Maybe a discussion regarding government welfare program ‘intent’ as opposed to ‘outcome’ would be more helpful?


    1. bethscib says:

      Thanks For your response Joe. Hoping that Bill is following this also to respond.


  2. peter7368 says:

    Any discussion of race and criminal justice in the PCUSA and Presbytery begins and ends in two presuppositions, or points that are pretty much accepted as orthodoxy and correct thought. That the American criminal justice system is inherently and systemically racist, as is the general culture. Its sole reason for existence in current form is to imprison primarily young men of color and minorities. That those on the front line, police and public safety reflect this racist culture, in fact racism is institutionalized in the police by and large in the urban core, and hence guilty until proven innocent. And apart from any other causality or reason, police remain the single most lethal threat to primarily young black males. And this narrative is pretty much boilerplate polemics from the denomination. It reflects the general homogenization of thought and ideas in the denomination at large.

    The problem is the other side of those presuppositions or beliefs, or data to the contrary, really no longer exist by and large in the Presbytery or denomination at large, and if they do, opinions are held to themselves to avoid conflict or being seen as the great unwashed or to be shunned in polite society. When I was in Philadelphia presbytery there was an initiate or what they called “talks” or dialogue on matters of sexuality and family leading up the repeal of the chastity clause. These talks were sponsored by the various sub-regional groups of how they divided the presbytery. Went to a few, and it became apparent these were not so much talking and listening forums as it was power point, lectures, polemics, advocacy, marketing of a certain point of view the Presbytery wanted. It was an insult to the intelligence I stopped attending, as well as hosts of others in time and they sort of drifted away into non-use in about a year. The fact that the committee got responses from 11 churches so far, about 25% of the Presbytery is a remarkable achievement in and of itself. But the old phrase preaching to choir or the already converted comes to mind. I do wish them well, in that talking beats conflict and shouting any day of the week. But I further have no illusions of their content and point of reference,


  3. Joe says:

    Hi Peter,

    I agree with but lament your words. At one point the PC was concerned less about ‘social issues’ and more concerned about faithfulness to Christ’s commandments to love one another and to make disciples. And at its core, it always remembered and respected the minority views as they just might be the correct views. Today, not so much on both accounts.

    When I was on Mission Council long ago; Joyce E notified us that the presbytery’s membership was dropping to close to 12000. But when our loss rate was factored in, the result was that there would be ‘no Presbyterians in the Presbytery of New Brunswick in 20 – 30 years.‘ This resonated in my heart so I thought about it and came up with some ideas on how the presbytery could turn it around (few would have been palatable back then and surely none now). Not long afterwards Joyce led a brief service and literally closed the doors on Prospect St church. That was a sad and poignant point where the presbytery should have stopped and thought about the future. (to say nothing of the denomination as a whole) But as you noted Peter in your previous note, once a cause is baptized as a ‘social justice’ issue all discussion ends and the church is on a new crusade. I looked at the 2014 PNB membership and per the Presbyterian missions stats it’s 8,144. My guess is that the membership is probably dipping well below 8000 now? I’m afraid Joyce’s’ stats and concerns may have been on the mark but nobody listened. Everyone was more excited about the next progressive issue to embrace.

    I’m sorry that I digressed from the topic of incarceration. But Peter, you brought up some excellent observations that I resonate with.


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