(Editor’s note: This is an ongoing blog series about Mass Incarceration and the Issues Around Reentry by Miea Walker. Miea writes from her personal experience of incarceration and the criminal justice system.)
Today is the day I choose to walk out my truth.
I am a former offender and I was incarcerated. I have been home for three years and during that time I experienced some of the best and worst moments of my life, specifically carrying feelings of shame and guilt.
The stigma of being labeled a felon weighs on you; it can break you. Your dignity is shattered and that label prohibits you from walking in the fullness of God and you begin to doubt yourself. Your mind is shrouded with questions. You start to question your relationships with people you meet. Will they judge me? Once I tell them will I be treated differently? Because you are acutely aware that once it’s out there, you are forever open and exposed.
You then begin the journey of proving yourself. You become competitive at work, school, and other areas with the hopes that no one sees your scarlet “F”. Weariness, exhaustion and depression may kick in; however, you must keep up the pace because you are eager to prove your worthiness to a society who says you’re not. You go to church, study the Word, and you fellowship with other believers and you sit and pray with them and you tithe. Yet you only engage to a certain point because you are not sure how the Body of Christ will receive you—if they only knew the truth.
This is my reality and the unfortunate reality of those who are incarcerated eager to return home.
During my incarceration, I made a promise to God that as He walked with me through this journey, I would use my voice for change. As the Training and Reentry Specialist for Jobs for Life, part of my role is to support and educate our leaders in understanding the epidemic of mass incarceration, develop training opportunities and provide resources to support those who work with this population.
This is also why I have decided to take part in the CCDA Locked in Solidarity Prayer Gathering on Thursday, February 12. These gatherings will take place all over the country, where people will spend time praying for our brothers and sisters for reconciliation, redemption and restoration. I will be leading a prayer gathering in Raleigh, NC—for more info, click here (there will also be more info about the event at the end of this post).
Below are the events that led to my involvement with CCDA and its focus on mass incarceration.
For the past two years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to attend CCDA’s National Conference. My first CCDA conference was held in New Orleans—and as a lover of all things New Orleans I became immensely nestled in their culture, food, and festivities. As a first-time participant of the event, I must admit I was overwhelmed. This was my first national anything and although my job had an existing relationship with CCDA, I had no idea what they were about.
It didn’t take long for me to learn God had me in the right place.
I instantly became drawn in by the plenaries, Bible studies, workshops, great food and fellowship. As I listened to Coach and Dr. Perkins in the morning, I sometimes felt as if I were sitting at the feet of Jesus. Something stirred deep within my spirit.
The theme for the conference was Cultivate and the industry topic focused on mass incarceration. I had the privilege of hearing Professor Michelle Alexander speak. She is an Associate Professor of Law at The Ohio State University, a civil rights activist and author of the trailblazing book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Hearing her speak, something resonated deep within me. Instantly, I felt a connection, a spark perhaps, like “finally someone gets it—gets me”. I thought, who is this woman, how can I meet her and are there others out there like her? As usual, I never spoke about it but I could feel a tug, a yearning. Before I left, I wanted to get my hands on as much material as possible. Eager to learn and grow, I purchased CDs, DVDs, and Professor Alexander’s book.
Little did I know God was setting the stage……
Last year, I could not wait to attend the CCDA National Conference. I was excited to learn the conference would be in Raleigh. My new supervisor, Byron McMillan, had been hired two weeks before the conference started. As a member of the host team, I became eager to glean from him the principles of CCDA. I could see how it made him a better husband, father, and follower of Christ. Again, I felt a stirring in my spirit.
However, this conference impacted me in ways that I will never completely understand. Flourish was the theme, based on Jeremiah 29. Coincidentally, Jeremiah 29:11-14 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. The Bible studies, plenaries and workshops were amazing; however, something jarred within me. I felt empowered; my posture changed and my vision shifted in the way I saw myself. It is difficult to articulate exactly what I experienced, but every day I walked into that convention center, I heard the voice of God say, “You are welcome here”.
That was it. I decided to take action—to take ownership of the gifts God had given me.
After the conference ended, I contacted Michelle Warren, CCDA’s Advocacy & Policy Engagement Director. At the conference, I heard CCDA had a mass incarceration task force and I wanted to learn how I could join. We talked for several minutes as I shared my background, passion, and why I felt it was important for me to be a part of this amazing group. After she conferred with the team, she called me back and told me I had been accepted. They had one slot open and they were praying for a former offender to join—someone who could share his or her personal experience to the plight of mass incarceration and be a part of a movement to end it.
What is the Locked In Solidarity Prayer Gathering?
The gathering is an opportunity to partner with CCDA communities across the country to hold prayer vigils of lament, hope and stories as we seek the Lord regarding a Christian response to Mass Incarceration.
Why is this important?
Presently in our country 2.3 million people are incarcerated. Since 1980, our nation’s prison population has quintupled in a 30-year period. According to the Sentencing Project (2014), “These trends have resulted in prison overcrowding and state governments being overwhelmed by the burden of funding a rapid expanding penal system, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not the most effective means of achieving public safety."
- The increase in incarceration rates is documented to be disproportionately affecting minorities and their communities.
- Approximately 9 million individuals are released from jail each year.
- Nearly 4.9 million individuals were on probation or parole at the end of 2010.
- 4 in 10 offenders returned to state prison within 3 years of their release.
- It is predicted 1 in 3 black males will serve time in jail or prison in their lifetime.
- 7.3 million children have at least one incarcerated parent in our nation today.
- Approximately 70% of these children will end up in the criminal justice system in their lifetime.
- The cost to house an individual in prison is $27,747 per year.
- The Pew Center reports states project a 3% increase in prisoners by 2018.
Unfortunately, barriers to reentry make it virtually impossible to reintegrate successfully. These barriers include housing, employment, voting restrictions, welfare benefits (ex. food stamps), education (drug felonies prohibit from securing financial aid), probation/parole (incurred fines/fees, court costs), child support, and judgments/liens (ex. attorney’s fees). Finding employment proves difficult with a criminal background. Most employers avoid the risk of hiring someone with a criminal record and oftentimes their resume is immediately discarded. Those who secure employment (with minimum wage and no benefits) have difficulty maintaining the expenses they incurred while imprisoned; thus, the cycle continues. These systemic issues continue to plague this population and increase their risk for recidivism.
Lastly, the brokenness these individuals experience can also hinder their transition home. Overcoming sexual trauma, domestic violence, and struggling with mental illness and/or addiction can hamper the process. Until the brokenness is addressed, the motivation to change is all but lost.
How should the Christian Community Respond?
As a community of believers, we are called to serve ALL God’s children. God’s word commands us to serve the poor. In Matthew 25: 35-36, it states, “I was in prison and you visited me”. Hebrews 13:3, states, “Remember those in prison, as though in prison with them”.
Please join me!
On Thursday, February 12th, I will be hosting the CCDA Locked In Solidarity Prayer Gathering at The Church of the Apostles in Raleigh, NC. This is a time to pray for our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated, their families, children, and loved ones. It also a time for activism—to demonstrate ways we can better support those while they are incarcerated and to embrace and welcome them back into our communities.
This is a call to action and the time is now. Let’s come together, share information and create opportunities for them to flourish.
I leave you with this quote from the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It states, “Love is the motive, justice is the instrument” (Reinhold Niebuhr).
> If you are interested in hosting a CCDA Locked In Solidarity Prayer Gathering in your area, click here.
> If you would like to attend the event I am hosting in Raleigh, click here.
- Sentencing Project (2014), http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/index.cfm
- The Council on State Governments (2015), http://csgjusticecenter.org/reentry/facts-trends/