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Emmanuel Baptist hosts third mass incarceration forum

This article was originally published on Sept. 21, 2015.

On Saturday, Sept. 19, community members filed into the Emmanuel Baptist Church to hear a number of local leaders address mass incarceration at the forum “A Travesty in Wisconsin,” the third in a series of four panels.

Reverend Dr. Brenda Atlas, who preaches at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church, organized the event. After attending Beloit College, she wrote her seminary school thesis on mass incarceration in Wisconsin. In her opening remarks, she outlined key facts framing this “travesty.”

Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate of African-Americans in the U.S. The current budget of the Department of Corrections in Wisconsin is $1.3 billion, up from $200 million in 1990. Only six percent of Wisconsin’s population is African American, yet they make up more than 50 percent of the state’s prison population. The Wisconsin faith-based justice organization WISDOM has been working on its 11×15 campaign that aims to reduce the state’s prison population to 11,000 by the end of 2015.

Dr. Atlas spoke of how embedded theology and adaptive theology have shaped her experience and knowledge as a reverend. Embedded theology is the “sum total of our beliefs and practices, what we have learned about and reflected upon,” and adaptive theology involves the “changes in belief systems as a result of experience.” After growing up Christian, Dr. Atlas left the Church, joined the Black Panther party and converted to Islam before returning to Christianity. She emphasized that while many see mass incarceration as a criminal justice issue, she sees it as an issue of racial justice.

Community member Carolyn Street, born and raised in Beloit, attended the forum. After being active in the Beloit NAACP for a number of years, she now serves on the local board and is passionate about fighting racism. “As a minority, and as a former teacher, I have real concerns from seeing kids forced into prison. I’m a little afraid for them, seeing what’s going on in the media with police harassment,” she said. “I have daughters and they’ve been stopped by police. It seems like we’re going backwards. We’re less inclusive than we used to be.”

Larry Stultz gave a recap of the most recent forum on July 25. The most common topics discussed were the importance of cultural competency training for police officers and citizens; changing legislature to eliminate mandatory sentencing for nonviolent crimes and ending profiling; providing resources and support for returning citizens such as education, employment, housing and counseling; eliminating private prisons; helping young parents; and taking political action such as increasing candidates and voters of color.

Dr. Atlas urged people to use the term “returning citizens” rather than “ex-offenders,” saying that “we don’t need to be making judgements about these people when they come out. They need support from the community.”

Upon exiting prison, returning citizens face many obstacles to re-integrating. Justice Over Borders (JOB), a subset of WISDOM, has been working on a statewide Ban the Box campaign to ban employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history.

Caliph Muab El spoke of his experience spending 15 years in prison, after being convicted at age 15. Ten of those years were spent in solitary confinement in a supermax facility, where he was constantly monitored by a camera.

“The psychological warfare against me and other brothers was unthinkable, unfathomable,” he said. “I heard brothers kicking and screaming all night. I saw the brutality of brothers’ teeth being knocked out by cops while their hands were tied, no threat. I’ve seen the dehumanization of people, humiliation and degradation.”

Faith helped him survive these struggles. “If I wanted liberation … I had to look deep inside myself,” he continued. “As a 15-year old, I was confused. They only made me believe I was a slave. When I learned that was a lie, I found a sense of direction, and learned who my ancestors were. I looked at the struggles of prophets, studied a lot of faiths. I knew I had to empower myself to help others.”

Because it was so hard to find employment after exiting prison, he started his own business of helping other returning citizens to integrate. “Mass incarceration doesn’t just hurt people who are incarcerated. It stifles the growth of the community,” he said. He became a paralegal and sued the supermax facility with a group of other returning citizens. The prison exists, but is no longer a supermax. “I have a son, and I have to think about the future. Once that stigma is attached to you, they’ll always look at you with that light. The truth needs to be told. It is a viscous cycle that is hard to break,” he said.

For him, mass incarceration is no different from slavery. “I’ve been the property of the DOC [Department of Corrections] for fifteen years.” He ended his talk saying, “We have an obligation as people to see people as people.”

After Muab El’s speech, Reverend David Hart shared his experiences as a public defender in Rock County. He sees firsthand the disparate sentencing and charges between whites and people of color. He called for accountability. He is bothered that young people tell him he’s the first Black person they’ve seen in the criminal justice system, and emphasized the importance of building a professional class of people of color.

Eunistene Glass, representing JOB, shared news of an upcoming collaboration between the organization and Beloit College to spread awareness of solitary confinement.

From Oct. 26 to Oct. 31, a solitary confinement cell replica will be placed in the Science Center Atrium. Campus and community members will be able to spend time in the cell, and can reserve it for an hour. A forum will be held on Oct. 30, featuring speakers from the community.

Pastor Navana Winston, from Apostolic Voices of Worldwide Covenant Ministries (AVOW) International, spoke of the sacredness of sharing these personal truths and stories, and emphasized how complex the issues are.

In an energetic and inspiring speech, she urged the audience to take a “sacred responsibility, a personal responsibility” to affect change where they can. She added, “We are going to need to take risks.” She cited “hatred of self and others, the media, music industry,” among other issues, as preventing people from taking action.

After asking the audience to share their own “sacred moments” of what has shaped them and opening up for questions, Dr. Atlas closed with a benediction. The final forum will be on Saturday, Oct. 3.

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