Response: September 2015 Issue

Breaking the Chains

Faith-based social justice advocates gather in Washington, D.C., for Ecumenical Advocacy Days

Breaking the Chains
Yer Lee Yang, Milwaukee District United Methodist Women, learns about mass incarceration at the 2015 Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington.

A consensus is brewing: The U.S. justice system needs fixing. Hundreds of Christian justice activists met from April 17 to 20 in Washington, D.C., to strategize and advocate for reform of the justice system in the United States. The rationale? The United States, 5 percent of the world's population, locks up 25 percent of the world's prison population. As a compassionate and frugal country, how do we justify the cost — in lives and dollars — of the vast prison complex?

This 13th annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days gathering sought to address this question and others from a faith-based perspective. This year's theme was "Breaking the Chains: Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation." As in years past, this year's topic addressed an issue frequently overlooked by the mainstream and a topic United Methodist Women has been concerned about and advocating for since its founding. The presence of United Methodist Women at the advocacy days was strong, as was the energy of the ecumenical, cross-faith partnerships.

Two issues sparked action and dialogue among members of United Methodist Women and their colleagues: ending the incarceration of immigrant families in detention centers and shining light on unfair criminal justice practices, especially solitary confinement.

Ending detention centers

United Methodist Women members, dedicated to women and children, advocate on behalf of international families held in U.S. detention centers.

In the exhibit hall, United Methodist Women offered a table to sign postcards to be sent to the White House asking President Obama to end family detention. Because the words "mass incarceration" are so broad, Yer Lee Yang, social action co-chair from the Milwaukee District United Methodist Women, who stopped by the table, said advocating for families makes sense. Her postcard was one among thousands signed at Ecumenical Advocacy Days to put the White House and elected officials on notice to end the detention of families. The postcard calls for an end to these for-profit detention centers, which criminalize the "least of these," women and children who seek asylum.

Two weeks after Ecumenical Advocacy Days, in early May, about 20 United Methodist Women members from all over the country joined in a rally in Dilley, Texas, with 600 advocates to close the largest family detention center in the United States. The Dilley center, called the "South Texas Family Residential Center," has a capacity for 2,400 women and children. However, instead of acting like a residence, the center is treated as a low-security prison, complete with a barbed wire fence and guard tower. It looks like a concentration camp with a playground.

No matter how bright the paint or how plentiful the board games, if residents are unable to come and go freely, it's still a prison, and refugee women and children who aren't criminals are treated like criminals. The majority of people housed at such centers — built and maintained at taxpayer expense — aren't trying to "get away" with anything but are instead trying to be contributing members of society while following the legal process to become U.S. citizens. We would all be better served if they were released on bond or put in the care of family members or friends in the country, activists argued.

The Dilley center is operated by the same for-profit group that ran the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas, a facility forced to release families and improve conditions in 2009 after successful lawsuits on behalf of 26 maltreated children. United Methodist Women joined in the mobilization against the conditions. Advocates discovered that children housed there had little schooling, wore orange jumpsuits and were confined for hours every day.

At the rally in Dilley, ecumenical faith leaders advocated for international families who are confined in the detention center, demanding that they be granted refugee status in the United States. The families ought not to be held in detention centers, as this flouts international law and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

United Methodists at Ecumenical Advocacy Days

Many United Methodist leaders offered workshops and plenaries at Ecumenical Advocacy Days. Bill Mefford, director of the civil and human rights for the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, addressed the gathering at the Saturday morning plenary.

"White people in churches, who make up 90 percent of The United Methodist Church, have enormous privilege," he said. "And with that privilege comes enormous responsibility."

Mr. Mefford said that it is not enough to do good and return to our churches. Rather, he challenged, we must enter in to incarnational relationships wherein we say to one another: "Your struggles, hopes, dreams are my struggles, hopes, dreams." And, "I will walk with you for the rest of my life."

We are all one person removed from someone in jail, Mr. Mefford said. One way to overcome the stigma of having a relative, friend or personal experience with the criminal justice system is to talk about the reality. For when violence, neglect or abuse remains hidden, it can prevail. Brought to awareness, systems of oppression can be challenged and changed.

On Saturday night of Ecumenical Advocacy Days, at least one hundred United Methodists gathered to share what United Methodist Women circles, specific agencies and annual conferences are doing to reform the criminal justice system. Many are advocating against solitary confinement.

The solitary confinement cell

Many participants experienced the replica solitary confinement cell at Ecumenical Advocacy Days. A modern-day tomb, it was set up in the dimensions of a prison cell no bigger than a parking spot. Organized by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), this cell replica allowed people to experience for a few (or many) minutes through immersion, including audio from a maximum security facility in Maine, what it's like living in a cell for 23 hours of every day.

Many exited the cell visibly shaken and relieved. According to the Rev. Laura Markle Downton, director of U.S. prisons policy for NRCAT, who initiated and staffed the display, one frequent response from people as they come out from the replica cell was, "You must've forgotten me."

When Kelley Veatch from Columbus, Ohio, exited the cell, she felt "a sense of forgotten-ness and helplessness." She had sat in the cell for 10 minutes. She marveled that anyone could withstand solitary confinement for longer than a few days. Those entering the cell were given a blank sheet of paper and a pen. While in the cell Ms. Veatch wrote the words "trapped," "confined," "caged," "alone," "survivor."

Ms. Veatch, with the InterReligious Task Force on Central America, had experienced for a few minutes what many prisoners in solitary confinement experience for years, disturbed by the relentless noise, the bright light, the boredom, the solitude. Ms. Downton explained that our daily interactions, small and large, help constitute our identities. Without human interaction, individuals lose a sense of humanity.

Many United Methodist Women members may recall discussing alternatives to solitary confinement after attending the screening of the film Herman's House at Assembly 2014. In the film, Herman, a man in Louisiana, has spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement. United Methodist Women members discussed the film with Five Mualimm-ak, founder of Incarcerated Nation and a member of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow and the Jails Action Coalition. On Facebook, one response to the film from a member of United Methodist Women was, simply, "Jesus wept." In many states, like New York, there are movements to create humane alternative to long term (HALT) solitary confinement.

Join the campaign

This year's Ecumenical Advocacy Days was a response to a groundswell from the faith community to reprioritize the country from a society that "locks 'em up and throws away the key" to a society that resolves conflict and crime with an awareness of and toward our shared humanity. In addition to the goals of ending family detention and solitary confinement, another cross-faith effort of the gathering was to end mandatory minimum sentencing.

"Unjust criminal justice practices and unnecessary immigrant detention run contrary to our faith and to our nation's fundamental values of basic dignity, due process and human rights," stated the leadership team in the opening pages of the event's program book.

The tide appears to be turning. Recently, some states, such as New York, New Jersey and California, have reduced prison populations by 25 percent without increasing the number of crimes.

The D.C. ecumenical gathering was based on Lamentations 3:34-36, "When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one's case is subverted — does the Lord not see it?" Ecumenical Advocacy Days asked those in attendance: Do we not see it?

One of the stated goals of the event was that "through prayer, worship, advocacy training, networking and mobilization with other Christians, we will face the reality of mass incarceration and corporate exploitation and call for national policies that bring liberation both to the prisoner and to a world in need of restoration."

The 2016 gathering will be held again at the Doubletree Hotel in Crystal City, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., from April 15-18. The weekend event always concludes with visits to Capitol Hill to lobby legislators for change in the laws in keeping with the shared goals of the Christian advocacy theme.

Videos and photos of this year's Ecumenical Advocacy Days can be found at www.advocacydays.org. Learn more from this year's event and consider attending next year's as United Methodist Women members work together to put faith, hope and love into action for all of our sisters and brothers.


Mary Beth Coudal is interim managing editor of response.

Posted or updated: 8/31/2015 11:00:00 PM
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