In true YAV/A blog fashion this post is pretty late, but I wanted to share a little about my experience in D.C. with the Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer Program and the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness at Ecumenical Advocacy Days Breaking the Chains: Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation.
The weekend started and ended in chaos- there were missing reservations, hotel changes, early flights, and a couple hours anxiously waiting on standby. But inbetween I had a wonderful time connecting with old and meeting new YAVA friends and listening to, learning from, and talking with Christians from all over the country who had gathered to be a voice and witness to our elected representatives.
The Presbyterians started with a day of advocacy training. In everyday life and everyday churches it’s hard to be aware of all the amazing things the church does as a denomination, but they were all there: the Presbyterian Mission Agency; Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministry; Office of Public Witness; Peacemaking Program; Ministry at the UN; Hunger Program, and I’m sure many others with plenty of acronyms. Did you know the Presbyterian church has an office of immigration issues? I didn’t either until this conference.
As people of faith we need to be aware and fight against exploitation and human rights violations where individuals and whole communities are being oppressed. There were workshops about all different topics about different forms of exploitation, from human trafficking to environmental issues, mass incarceration and returning citizens to education, immigrant family detention to Palestinian occupation, US drug policies, and private prisons. This training day set the tone for the rest of the conference, which was similar but on a much bigger scale.
I am grateful I got to spend time with fellow YAVA sharing stories about our YAV years as well as learning about where they are now. We also met other young people doing faith-based service programs from other denominations, and young people from all over the country who care about social justice and creating a better future. It is refreshing and encouraging to know there are other young Christians who are passionate about the same issues and are doing similar work all over the country. It’s a powerful movement.
The focus of the conference, and of our legislative “asks” during our lobby visits, were mass incarceration and immigration family detention.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country; we have 5% of the world’s population but we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. There 2.2 million people incarcerated in the US, which is a 500% increase over the past 30 years. One in three young African American men is incarcerated by the criminal justice system in some form, either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole. This is clearly a crisis in our communities and in our country that we need to address. When we met with our elected officials we asked they to support the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 (S.502/H.920) and the Justice Safetly Valve Act of 2015 (S.353/H.706) that would allow judges to have flexibility and discretion in sentencing. Far too many people are being locked up for far too long; they are not getting the education, support, or mental and physical medical help they need while incarcerated, and have limited resources and job opportunities when they return.
We also asked our representatives to eliminate the bed quota of 34,000 for immigrants and implement alternatives to detention. At all times we (the tax payers) are paying for 34,000 beds to detain undocumented immigrants, whether they are dangerous or a risk or not, which is driving our immigration policies. This means families with young children are being detained in prisons, in many of which human rights abuses and deaths have occurred. Many of these policies are in place due to the lobbying of private prison corporations, who are making a large profit by detaining mothers and their children in extremely under-regulated facilities. Almost 60% of detention beds are in facilities owned by private prisons. This is not how Jesus told us to treat our neighbors, and we believe there are more humane and just alternatives to detention for low-risk individuals.
There were around 16 of us from Iowa participating in lobby day, many of whom are current or retired pastors, including prison chaplains. I am grateful I got to learn form and be a part of such a great group.
All weekend everyone kept saying that we had the most important meeting– we were going to meet with Senator Grassley himself to discuss mandatory minimums. The Smarter Sentencing bill we were supporting is currently in the Judiciary committee, and he happens to be the chairperson, and he happens to dislike the bill. We ended up meeting with his staff members instead of him, which was disappointing, but we still got to tell our stories and make our voices heard. It was clear that we have different ideological perspectives on the criminal justice system. We agreed changes need to be made, but our explanations that too many young men are being locked up for too long, that families and whole communities are being oppressed because of our drug and immigration policies seemed to fall on deaf ears. They seemed more concerned about locking up all the “bad” people, especially those addicted to drugs, and weren’t concerned about their stories or experiences and had no compassion for families and young children being detained in private prisons. But for about 30 minutes they had to listen to us, and with all of the letters we send and petitions we sign we won’t let them forget.
I am incredibly grateful I got to participate in the conference and lobby day to to be a part of this faith and justice movement.