Peter Goerzen

Jerrell Williams, Director of Prison Ministries for Offender Victim Ministries in Newton, Kan. spoke at a recent lunch at the MCC Center in North Newton, Kan. 

MCC Central States sent Jerrell Williams to participate in the 2015 National Gathering of Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C. The gathering's focus was to address solutions to national and worldwide issues of imprisonment, exploitation and forced labor.

Recently, Williams shared about this experience with a group of constituents over the lunch hour at the MCC Center in North Newton, Kan. Here's what he shared: 

Hello everyone. First of all I would like to thank MCC Central States for inviting me to come speak to you guys. So when I was writing this presentation I was going to try and add in some funny jokes. That is my personality. I try to be a funny guy, but I realized that this topic isn’t a laughing matter.

Here is a short story for you. My older brother was shot five times in Detroit, Michigan. Don’t worry he is okay. After he was shot he was afraid and decided to buy a gun illegally. One day he was stopped by the police for a traffic stop. The police searched the car and found the unregistered and unlicensed weapon that he had for self-defense. He was sentenced to a little over a year in prison. I had to spend a portion of my life thinking that my older brother was a bad person. But that wasn’t really the case. He was a guy that made a mistake because he was scared and didn’t know what else to do in the environment that he was in. You want to know the saddest part of that story? The sad thing is that this situation or situations like this are extremely common in our country. Here are some alarming stats for you all.

The United States has the third highest population in the world with approximately 325 million people in it. The only countries with more people are India with approximately 1.2 billion and China with 1.4 billion. Now of that 325 million people in the U.S., 2.1 million are currently in prison. China has 1.5 million people in prison. India has a total of 332,112. Now can someone please explain to me how the country with the third largest population is number one when it comes to the number of people incarcerated? I guess we have to be number one at something. Now of that 2.1 million around 70% of them are in prison due to nonviolent drug charges. Like I said earlier, there are 325 million people living in the U.S. Only around 30% are people of color but of the 2.1 million currently in prison, 58% of them are people of color. That’s right folks, people of color make up one-third of our country but over half of our prison population. I have two black guys that I call my best friends. One is named Tevin and the other is Logan. Tevin and I graduated from Bethel College in 2015. Logan is currently a senior at Bethel College. Stats say that in our lifetime one of us will end up in prison.

According to Michelle Alexander's book “The New Jim Crow” she argues that it is due to the “War on Drugs” proposed by Ronald Reagan. The “War on Drugs” sounded like a good idea in theory. The government would fight to get drugs out of the inner city. However, after Reagan announced this drug sales and usage increased within the inner city. An increase in the prison population also increased as a result. The places that were targeted were ironically the neighborhoods where people of color lived.

Now you say, but Jerrell the people who are in prison committed crimes so putting them in prison gets crime off the streets. Well actually it doesn’t. Stats show that as the prison population increased so did the crime rate. So obviously prison isn’t helping. Do you want to know why it isn’t helping? It isn’t helping because prison is the last thought on someone’s mind when they have nothing. There was a legendary drug smuggler named George Jung. Now Mr. Jung was born and raised in the U.S. He had a mother who basically hated him and always ran out on him and his father. Jung in turn left his family behind and tried to go to college. The sad thing is that he couldn’t afford college. So he then turned to selling marijuana. He was caught and sentenced to prison. Now in his documentary he says that in prison is where he learned how to sell drugs without getting caught. He called prison a school where low criminals learn to become big criminals. George Jung got out of prison and became the first man to bring cocaine to America. He is now known as the biggest drug smuggler in American history. Judging from his life I would conclude that prison didn’t help. It actually made things worse. Not only for George Jung, but also for America.

Now I’m going to say this right now. The War on Drugs is a war on people of color. It is a new caste system that we have created. How did we let this happen? How did we miss this? It’s because we are dealing with felons. We are dealing with people that have broken the law and society says that we should shun them out of the world and lock them up for their crimes. Crimes where they didn’t physically harm anyone. What do you think happens to someone that is released from prison? Well let me tell you. They get out and have to find a place to live. Now as you can guess family might not want to have much to do with someone fresh out of prison. Then they have to think about a job. Well when filling out that application they have to check that box that says convicted felon, and no one wants to hire a felon. So they get a very low paying job making it hard to even get by. They realize that they can’t get by so they go out and try to get help from the government. Oh wait the government doesn’t help someone that has been to prison. So then they realize that the rules are unfair so they try to vote so that they can once again have a voice in this unjust society that we live in. But they can’t vote because they have been to prison. So after they have no family, no job, no money, and no help you know what happens next. They go back to doing the same thing that got them in prison. It is no surprise that two-thirds of all prisoners released wind up re-offending once they get out.

I received the great opportunity to go to Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington D.C back in April. It was an amazing experience. There were a bunch of churches and pastors from all over the U.S. We worshiped and prayed together. We got the chance to advocate together and talk about breaking the chains of mass incarceration and systems of exploitation. While I was there I was able to go to Capitol Hill and speak with Senator Moran’s staff about mass incarceration and what they can do to change it. I also want to brainstorm with you guys on how to solve this problem. Here are some ideas:

First of all make sure you ADVOCATE. People released from prison can’t advocate for themselves so it is up to us to be their voices. We must vote like we mean it. When you are looking to vote please make sure you look up each candidate's views on criminal justice reform. Currently there is a bill being proposed called the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015. This bill will lower minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. It will save the government millions of dollars so that we can put money in other programs. Like, you know….education. Also we need to invest in some sort of prison ministry or reform programs. We at Offender Victim Ministries offer the M-2 program where you can visit with an inmate that doesn’t receive regular visits. There are also other programs that you can volunteer with and support that help those who are incarcerated.

Finally we need to spread the word. People need to know about this. People need to know that the Jim Crow era has yet to pass. Remember, we all can’t be free, until they are free. Thank you.