Presbyterians respond to the mass incarceration crisis

CPJ Training Day workshop offers grassroots strategies for change

March 9, 2015

LOUISVILLE

Three years ago, the Presbyterian Health Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) convened a gathering of Presbyterians and members of other faith traditions to develop a network that would address issues arising from our nation’s criminal justice system. The result was the establishment of the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network (PCJN). Its leadership ranges from individuals engaged in the struggle to abolish private prisons to those advocating an end to the death penalty and faith community leaders who have developed reentry programs for citizens returning to society after incarceration. 

The network was formed at a time when the US criminal justice system was coming under increased scrutiny. From what the Children’s Defense Fund calls the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” to mandatory sentencing for minor drug offenses, many people of faith, including Presbyterians, have concluded that the system is badly broken. 

A contributing factor, cited by the Rev. Trina Zelle, PHEWA National Organizer and Executive Director, is the growth of for-profit private prisons and their negative impact on prison reform. “Private prison contracts with the state often include the requirement for a guaranteed number of occupied beds. This serves as a disincentive to reduce the number of incarcerated persons. In fact, private prison corporations have actively lobbied against the kinds of reform that would reduce the inmate population.” 

In 2003, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the abolition of private prisons, stating that, “since the goal of for-profit private prisons is earning a profit for their shareholders, there is a basic and fundamental conflict with the concept of rehabilitation as the ultimate goal of the prison system.”   

“The PC(USA) has been a prophetic voice on the criminal justice system,” says Susan Stack, mission associate with PHEWA and Networking. “The church was among the first to promote a restorative justice model -- ‘the need to develop a nonpunitive philosophy that stresses the use of the least restrictive alternatives to imprisonment, including community-based corrections.’ The God we worship is concerned with doing whatever it takes to restore people in relationship—with each other and with God; this is the essence of restorative justice.” 

“The criminal justice system is more punitive than rehabilitative,” Stack continues. “Without effective rehabilitative services, people are not prepared to succeed upon returning home. And it’s no secret that persons of color are disproportionately penalized. The ‘Resolution on Racism, Incarceration, and Restoration’ was presented by the Advisory Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC) and approved by the 220th General Assembly (2012).” 

Zelle also believes the criminal justice system has been negatively impacted by the collapse of the public mental health system. 

“Many people have been incarcerated for actions stemming from their own untreated mental health issues,” she says. “With reduced or even nonexistent therapeutic options, people with mental illness are warehoused in correctional facilities, often with tragic consequences.” 

PCJN and PHEWA leadership believe one effective response to the current mass incarceration crisis is a strong grassroots movement that will challenge mass incarceration on a variety of levels. Gail Tyree, a PCJN network founder and current member of its leadership team, along with the Rev. Dr. Bob Brashear, a PHEWA Board member, will be coleading a workshop on April 17, at Compassion, Peace, and Justice (CPJ) Training Day in Washington, D.C. “Grassroots Responses to the Mass Incarceration Crisis” will introduce participants to criminal justice issues as well as effective strategies for the faith community to address them. 

Both Zelle and Stack encourage people who would like to know more to connect with PCJN and PHEWA, saying that the best way to stay informed about the work is membership with the network and PHEWA. 

For more information about the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network, visit https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterian-criminal-justice-network/ and http://www.phewacommunity.org, or contact Trina Zelle at: trinazelle6@gmail.com.

For information about Compassion, Peace, and Justice Training Day, go to https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/compassion-peace-justice/advocacy-training-weekend-2015/.