“The poor and people of color are being imprisoned in this country at a rate that is not compared to any other country on this planet,” Rev. Willie Brisco, chair of the African-American Leadership Commission, told nearly 100 leaders of the AALC and Gamaliel national clergy caucus at an April gathering.
Brisco along with Pastor Michael Brooks of MORE2 helped lead the charge for the network to take its work to end mass incarceration to a new level.
Opening the event with a look at how we arrived at this moment, Brooks said that after the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, "the faith community went to sleep. It was almost as if we had won enough battles, now everybody can relax. While we were sleeping this verbiage came about, called the War on Drugs.... The reality was it became a war on black and brown communities."
Over the several days convening, participants heard an expert overview on the state of policy advocacy nationally from a Sentencing Project expert. As they shared successes and ongoing work from around Gamaliel, five main approaches to criminal justice work emerged amongst the more than 20 groups from 14 states who were at the AALC gathering:
Education & School Discipline
Groups like Metropolitan Congregations United are working to address the school to prison pipeline, including a major revision of the St. Louis Public Schools discipline code.
A half dozen or more organizations are looking at diversity on their police force and rebuilding trust in law enforcement. For many this includes advancing policies to insure officers use body cameras such as Roc-ACTS in Rochester. In Pittsburgh, PIIN leaders have been working with law enforcement for more than a year on a number of issues including cameras, which they are now addressing at the state level, for example.
Courts, sentencing, and treatment instead of prison
Father Joe Ellwanger presented a timeline of WISDOM’s organizing starting more than 20 years ago that led more than 15 years ago to millions of dollars for Wisconsin’s “Treatment Alternatives diversion” program (named by a state legislator) to keep people with mental illness out of prison. Terry Lorenz of WISDOM’s Ex Prisoner Organizing, or EXPO group, shared with the group how she benefited from the unique Alternatives to Incarceration for Mothers, AIM, Court, in Eau Claire. The Ezekiel Project helped create a Drug Court in Saginaw, MI, and Quad Communities Interfaith is working to win a Mental Health Court in Davenport. Other important issues related to courts and sentencing include crimeless revocation of probation.
A number of groups are also working to reform how people are treated in prison, such as ending solitary confinement for juveniles
, advocated by ACT-Syracuse.
Person after person shared stories of how finding housing and a job are two challenges people leaving prison and their families find most difficult to navigate. Nearly every organization in the room had worked to ‘ban the box’ to end indiscriminate requests about job candidates’ criminal records, and Mark Rice of EXPO shared the group’s work in getting President Obama to institute a federal ban.
Beyond that, groups like VOICE-Buffalo are connecting jobs and workforce campaigns to criminal justice, for example by emphasizing local hire strategies that would help target communities with a high concentration of formerly incarcerated people.
Gamaliel of Metro Chicago is planning an Expungement Summit as part of its Fiesta del Sol later this summer. The event will feature attorneys, representatives from the county courts office, and judges in the field, to provide a free, one-stop approach to helping those who are eligible to clear their record and move on with their life.
The meeting concluded with an affirmation to move forward in proposing that the Gamaliel Network make ending mass incarceration a priority nationally. Participants at the gathering also elected a new slate of officers for the AALC. Joining Rev. Brisco and Rev. Bobby Love as chair and vice chair will be:
- Chair: Rev. Willie Brisco, MICAH
- Vice Chair: Rev. Bobby Love, MORE2
- 2d Vice Chair Pastor Thomas Brown of Ezekiel Project
- Communications Secretary : Rev. Buena Smith-Dudley, PIIN
- Mass Incarceration Liaison: Minister Caliph Muab’El, WISDOM
The emphasis throughout the conference was on learning from each other about what’s been done so far and planning for the future. As Lorenz of EXPO noted: “There are some great things that we are doing that other states can use, and we can all build together and come together as a nation.”