Religious and student leaders join in solidarity with national mass incarceration vigils



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

As of 2012, there were more black men in prison, on probation, or on parole than there were in slavery in 1850.

That startling fact, from a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik named “The Caging of America,”  is more than enough to activate compassionate people, including those of faith.

As part of a national movement through the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) to encourage thinking about mass incarceration, the local Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) Office of Social Justice helped organize a prayer vigil at the 61st District Courthouse.

The Thursday evening event was one of many that took place in more than 30 cities across the U.S. under the annual CCDA “Locked in Solidarity” campaign.

The main organizing partner with the CRCNA was the student training organization Grand Rapids Initiative for Leadership, which encourages youth to commit to working on issues they themselves find most meaningful.

Vigil-keepers faced bitter cold, and CRCNA Office for Justice Project Developer Kate Kooyman said she is pretty sure warmer weather would have meant a much larger turnout, especially of students. Nonetheless, about 15 hardy souls showed up for prayer, discussion, and dissemination of materials offering resources for further action.

There were two other earlier events in Grand Rapids, for which tireless justice volunteer Carol Rienstra was the main organizer.

The first was a prayer breakfast at Elizabeth’s Kitchen on 28th Street, sponsored by the Prisoners in Christ team from Church of the Servant CRC, attended primarily by re-entering citizens.

The second, which was covered by WZZM-TV, was a gathering at Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church sponsored by the Micah Center Beyond Prisons Advocacy Group. Pastors from around the community, including Rev. Rich Rienstra, Pastor Shirley Jones and Rev. James Jones, joined such groups as The Other Way, Sherman Street, and Criminal Justice Chaplaincy.

“I am very thankful for the opportunity to work and be present with others on this journey,” said Rienstra.

Rev. Noel Castellanos, President and CEO of the national CCDA notes, “The racial and socioeconomic disparities plaguing our criminal justice system demand that we take action. As an association of practitioners who live, work and worship in communities most impacted by mass incarceration, we must ensure that something is done. We won’t stay silent. We need to find ways to reform the system that serves to restore and rehabilitate lives in a just and compassionate manner.”

The prison population in the United States increased more than five times in the three decades between 1980 and 2010.

Though the reasons are comples, the CCDA?and other analysts see the following four causative factors as the primary drivers: the war on drugs, and particularly mandatory minimum sentences as well as the “three-times-and-you’re-out” laws; the privatization of the prison system, about which the CCDA?says, “Corporations... have found ways to financially profit off discriminatory legislation which masquerades under the guise of ‘get tough on crime’ rhetoric;” the profitability of immigration deportation holding centers; and school policies that institute severe punishments for infractions that would have been handled on an individual basis in the past, resulting in what is termed a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

As attorney David LaGrand, a candidate for the 75th District State Representative seat, told others at the courthouse vigil, most of these policies should be addressed at the state level. Sentencing guidelines as well as the operation of prisons with the highest populations fall to the state.

Activism at the local and school district levels and Congressional advocacy are also necessary. A CRCNA Office of Social Justice sheet given out at the vigil calls for people to contact U.S. senators, Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow to urge passage of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, S. 2123. Though many acknowledge it is not perfect, the Act would move away from mandatory minimums to more judicial discretion in sentencing.

The CRC and other religious leaders intend to keep the mass incarceration issue in the forefront. Noting that church members have long supported the Bible’s Matthew 25, which quotes Christ as saying “I was in prison and you came to visit me... whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me,” Kooyman adds, “As... we recover the humanity that’s been lost in some of the public rhetoric, we at the CRC will continue working on this — to help people see some of the ways in which the system is just not working and is causing pain for our brothers and sisters.”