MCC Mass Incarceration Service Day draws more than 250 attendees
“Life’s most persistent and nagging question is ‘What are you doing for others?’"—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is often viewed as a “day off” for students and working professionals in the U.S. But for Philadelphia-area supporters of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), January 15, 2018 was a “day on” where they stepped forward to show their thirst for peace and justice in a place that often seems devoid of hope—U.S. prisons.
On that cloudy Monday morning, over 250 people gathered at Circle of Hope's 1125 South Broad Street location in Philadelphia, Pa., for “Restoring Hope and Dignity,” a day of service in collaboration with Kingdom Builders Network (KBN) focusing on the theme of mass incarceration in the U.S. Attendees’ energy and smiles brought light and optimism to an otherwise foggy, cold day.
Representing churches, schools and community organizations from Philadelphia and the surrounding areas, attendees packed into Circle of Hope, a Brethren in Christ congregation, to learn and advocate for those in prison. ChiChi Oguekwe, Philadelphia program coordinator for MCC’s East Coast region, explains, “Some people, especially in our churches, want to help returning citizens in some way but don’t know how, so I hope that this event gave them the opportunity to help, to learn more about this issue and to be inspired by meeting other like-minded individuals.” Returning citizens are formerly incarcerated individuals who return to society.
Event attendees heard from a panel of formerly incarcerated individuals and community leaders, who shared their insights on the roles of race and poverty in mass incarceration in the U.S. Oguekwe says, “It informed us on the impact of mass incarceration on the individual, family and ultimately the community, and of the need to address these issues [while] working together in faith.”
Attendees entered the gathering toting bags full of donated basic hygiene items which, after the panel discussion, they assembled into kits for indigent incarcerated people in the Philadelphia detention center. For those who wanted to be involved but were unable to attend, they donated money on MCC’s website to go towards purchasing kit items. Thanks to those donations, MCC staff were able to bring items for 250 kits.
Prisoner care kits contain basic hygiene and personal care items that an incarcerated person would usually have to purchase themselves. After being handed a brown paper bag labeled with an ‘M,’ ‘L,’ or ‘XL’ corresponding to the correct clothing sizes, participants shuffled down the assembly line, carefully placing the correct size white shirt, socks and underwear in the bag, followed by a tube of toothpaste, stick of deodorant, bar of bath soap and bottle of lotion.
Volunteers from Circle of Hope, KBN and the local community helped make the event an overwhelming success. With guidance from James Wheeler, manager of the MCC Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pa., a core group of volunteers assisted in readying kit supplies for packaging. These volunteers neatly folded white t-shirts, underwear and socks, and organized them according to size so that assembly could go as smoothly as possible. Wheeler says, “The intergenerational group of volunteers was awesome and helped create a flow to a life-giving event.”
During the kit packing segment of the event, participants had the opportunity to step in front of a backdrop and have their photo taken. In this way, they could express their solidarity with those in prison and make a statement about their desire to end mass incarceration in the U.S.
Wheeler hopes that those who attended the event have “a bigger heart of love and compassion for those who are living in prison or who are returning citizens.” Oguekwe adds, “I hope that people were well-informed... that they are encouraged and inspired to support formerly incarcerated individuals in a smoother transition into mainstream society.”
At the end of the day, Wheeler counted a total of 567 complete prisoner care kits, with enough supplies left over to assemble an additional 150 kits.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not only a day for celebration and remembrance, education and tribute, but above all it is a day of service. King lifted the value of service as the hallmark of a full life. It is in this spirit that MCC commemorated this day by fulfilling its purpose to restore hope and dignity to those in prison, re-integrate those formerly incarcerated into society, and rebuild families and communities.
Mass incarceration is one area where MCC works domestically. According to the Equal Justice Initiative and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the U.S. is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. People of color in the U.S. are incarcerated at disproportionate rates—white men have a one-in-17 chance of being imprisoned, while the chance is one-in-six for Hispanic men and one-in-three for African American men.
MCC’s work surrounding mass incarceration seeks to “advocate for policy change, have close relationships with those in prison, and continuously discern how we can better assist those returning home from prison,” says Cherelle Dessus, legislative assistant and communications coordinator for MCC’s Washington, D.C. office. Mass incarceration is a priority issue across the U.S. for MCC, with a focus on education and advocacy efforts in regards to the racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system.
In the midst of an unjust society that imprisons disproportionate numbers of people of color, MCC builds peace in prisons and reminds indigent incarcerated people that they are not forgotten through gifts of prisoner care kits.
Wheeler says, “The event was about peacebuilding and transformation of individuals and communities. It’s a demonstration of what it means to live peace and to build communities of peace.”
Oguekwe offers, “Ultimately, [we hope] to build a sense of community and empower people to stand up for what is right and to support each other in promoting peace and justice in our communities.”
MCC’s prisoner care kits help meet the basic needs of current and former prisoners. Help us make a difference in Philadelphia prisons by collecting and packing prisoner care kit items that will restore hope, dignity and mental health to these individuals.