By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published October 27, 2022
ATLANTA–Local faith communities will soon gather to discuss their role in addressing the challenges of mass incarceration.
Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities will come together for the National Multifaith Ending Mass Incarceration Conference Jan. 11-13, 2023. The three-day event will be at Ebenezer Baptist Church for two days and at The Temple for one day.
Waleisah Wilson, criminal justice reform activist and organizer, is co-chair of next year’s conference. She is a member of multiple organizations that work for criminal justice reform and to support returning citizens.
Faith communities are critical to the success of criminal justice work, said Wilson, “not only (to) the lives of incarcerated people, but also the social lives of those released from prison.”
Wilson entered prison in 2010 and was there for nearly a year before being released. She was exonerated in 2017. Her experiences motivated her to pursue work in the criminal justice field.
Growing up in poverty, “I felt like prison was … a good thing because if you’re on drugs, it’s a place for you to get clean,” said Wilson. “And if you’re a threat to society, it’s a place for society to be safe from you.”
But after entering prison, I realized “a lot of the folks in prison are not actual threats to society and that the prison was being used as an alternative to address issues that were poverty-driven,” she said.
Many of the prisoners Wilson met had committed a crime while battling addiction or having a mental health crisis. Recalling her experience working with adults who had intellectual and developmental disabilities, she felt these women needed more support.
Since being involved in criminal justice reform, Wilson’s most rewarding experiences have been helping hundreds of returning citizens with felony convictions gain job readiness skills and connecting them with employment opportunities. She is also happy that she can lend her voice to spreading awareness of the workings of the criminal system and about challenges the formally incarcerated face.
Georgia is in the top five states in America with the highest incarceration rates. In 2021, the Prison Policy Initiative reported that Georgia has an incarceration rate of 968 per 100,000 people, which includes time in prisons, jails, immigration detention and juvenile justice facilities.
“Everybody says Georgia is the home of the Civil Rights Movement, and home to Dr. Martin Luther King and all of these things that express freedom,” said Wilson. “Yet, here in Georgia, we have the most people who are not free.”
At the conference, Wilson hopes faith communities will understand how critical their support is for returning citizens.
“Most of the time, when we get out of prison, we’re already stigmatized or discriminated against,” she said. “One of the places that we feel that we should be welcomed is a place of worship.”
Having a spiritual foundation after incarceration could be the key between a person staying grounded, on track and motivated to do better instead of going back to their old ways, she said.
Catholics get involved
Within the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s geographical boundaries, there are more than 230 incarceration facilities, with 32 run by the Department of Corrections, two federal and 196 county and city jails.
Two ministry offices in the Atlanta Archdiocese work to address criminal justice reform. While Prison Ministry provides support to parishes with prison and jail ministries, Justice and Peace Ministries provides resources, education and advocacy opportunities for addressing social justice issues in light of Catholic social teaching.
Jayna Hoffacker, associate director of Justice and Peace Ministries, is on the national board for the Multifaith Initiative to End Mass Incarceration (EMI), which is hosting the conference in January 2023. Topics range from mental health to record restrictions.
She hopes Catholics who attend the conference are able to make connections with others interested in the same work.
“The more that we can build these relationships, the stronger the work is going to be,” she said.
Justice and Peace Ministries will host an advocacy training webinar to prepare local Catholics to participate in the next legislative session on Mon, Dec. 12, at 7 p.m.
Being involved in criminal justice reform is what we’re called to do as Catholics, said Hoffacker.
“It’s the Gospel. It’s really as simple as that,” she said.