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5 things your congregation can do to support criminal justice reform

Prison fence lined with barbed wire and a watch tower
Photo: AFSC

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with over 2.4 million people currently behind bars. Poor people and people of color are incarcerated at vastly disproportionate rates. Many prisoners are held in solitary confinement or denied adequate medical care and educational opportunities, and few resources are invested in reentry or community programs.

AFSC works to end mass incarceration, improve conditions for people who are in prison, stop prison privatization, and promote a reconciliation and healing approach to criminal justice issues.

AFSC Friends Relations, in an effort to create a more substantial level of engagement between Friends and AFSC, is piloting a program called Quaker Social Change Ministry to support and facilitate Spirit-led, social justice work in Quaker meetings/churches. This program is based on the work of Kelly Dignan, Kierstin Homblette, and Deborah Holder, three Unitarian Ministers in the Denver area who created this model to support congregations doing powerful social change ministry.

Please fill out an interest form to learn more about the program.

1. Educate yourselves about mass incarceration

Korbin Felder is an intern with AFSC in Michigan

Whether you have direct experience or not, get background information, and educate yourselves about the problem of mass incarceration. 

- Start a New Jim Crow reading group using this study guide

- Start a Beyond Prisons study group using the study guide

- Hold a public education event using Broken on all Sides, The House I Live in, Redemption of the Prosecutor, or this Stopmax video.

- Listen to Laura Magnani, Director of AFSC’s Bay Area Healing Justice Program in California, describe her experiences on the mediation team for hunger strikers at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California and why Quakers need to take an active role in ending mass incarceration. You can listen to the full recording of this Call for Spirited Action by clicking here.

- Listen to Dominque Stevenson, Program Director for AFSC's Friend of a Friend program, describe the work of Friend of a Friend and how that program is addressing the needs of predominantly black communities in Baltimore that are heavily impacted by mass incarceration, hunger, and poverty. You can listen to the full recording of this Call for Spirited Action by clicking here.

- Watch How Quakers Can Help End Mass Incarceration, a QuakerSpeak video, and share it with your networks.

2. Get your congregation inside the prison walls

Learning and working with those most impacted by the criminal justice system will change you. You can volunteer at a federal prison through Prisoner and Visitation Support.

Participate in Alternatives to Violence programs in prisons. They are all over the country and many Quakers congregations are involved. Learn more here.

Write regularly to an incarcerated person. Pen pals can be a vital link for those under correctional control.  Write a Prisoner has listings of incarcerated men and women throughout the United States seeking pen pals.  Human Rights Pen Pals connects community members with people in long term isolation.

Once your meeting/church has established contact with people in prison, you can begin to ask some specific questions about what kind of education, support, volunteer/prisoner-run programs they need help organizing inside.

Guard tower at Michigan prison

To get your program off the ground, recruit volunteers who are committed to having a regular, dedicated presence inside. 

Your congregation can work on developing a program curriculum in coordination with people living inside, or starting a worship group inside if people inside request one. If you teach higher education, get involved with Inside Out.

Michigan and New York staff can offer guidance based on state specific experience if you need help. 

3. Lift up mass incarceration concerns within your community

Judy Bohr, an AFSC Michigan intern, reads a letter from a prisoner.

As you bear witness to prison conditions and realities, you will become an outside monitor of prison conditions and problems. Eventually, your congregation can build from this experience to develop strategies to deal with these issues. If your congregation is working with more than one or two people, you may discover trends in problems.

It is important to develop relationships with legislators, ombudspeople, and corrections administrators who might be able to stop the problems before they escalate.

We are happy to consult on how to address prisoner rights cases that may surface (access to appropriate health care, mental health care, access to parole, access to programming and education, access to visits, over-classification including the use of solitary confinement, food quality, and so on).

4. Provide support to prisoners’ families and people returning from prison

Friend of a Friend employees Mike Perry and Russell Green on Dolphin Street in Baltimore, near Perry's former residence.

As a mentor to the child of a person living in prison or a helper to someone reentering your community from prison, you could:

- Meet for a weekly or monthly meal

- Provide transportation to school or work

- Help with school applications/enrollment

- Assist with a job search

- Rent a room (rent can be many things—house work and/or money exchanged)

Visit for other resources that may be helpful in working with folks re-entering the community.

5. Challenge key people—including your legislators

All of the above are political actions, but you can become directly linked to ongoing campaigns in communities throughout the country.

Anti-privatization of prisons work in Arizona and New Hampshire.

Anti-solitary confinement work in various states throughout the country: Illinois, New Jersey, California, New York Arizona, Maine, and Michigan.

Tribunal moderator Angela Johnese speaks with Friend of a Friend Program Director Dominque Stevenson.

Follow Solitary Watch for up-to-date information.

Get your Yearly Meeting or Quarterly Meeting to develop a statement or minute against prison and detention center privatization, solitary confinement and torture, and/or other criminal justice related issues.

Your congregation can also learn more about the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DOCD), which is the collection of documents that underpinned genocide of Native Americans, enslavement of blacks, the Law of Nations, Manifest Destiny, and the post-Civil War building of the carceral system, and that is the backbone of Federal Indian Law.

You can study toward potential repudiation of DOCD. New England Yearly Meeting and AFSC staff in Maine can answer inquiries about this.

For more

- Download more resources for you and your congregation.

- Learn more about the Quaker Initiative to end Torture

- Join the National Religious Campaign Against Torture

- Bill Mefford is working to start a group of grassroots religious leaders to create a movement against mass incarceration. You can contact him to get involved:

Bill Mefford, Director, Civil and Human Rights for The United Methodist Church
General Board of Church and Society
The United Methodist Church
100 Maryland Avenue NE, Suite 310
Washington DC 20002



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