Over 2 million Americans are currently living in captivity inside the US prison industrial complex. With the highest rate of incarceration in the world, the US imprisons more people than in any other nation. With billions flowing into private prisons, corporate prison labor, and political lobby groups, our so called “justice” system has become a market of trading lives for cash.
Over a year ago, our congregation began exploring the problem of mass incarceration with a congregational read of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. This year we are taking what we’ve learned together, and taking action to confront the profit incentive behind mass incarceration, to change policies that criminalize our communities, and to create resources and employment opportunities for people returning from the prison industrial complex and their families.
On May 1st, FUUW member Rob Williams led an action organized by Sunflower Community Action. Rob, other FUUW members, and SCA mobilized to open a dialogue with Costco about making jobs available to communities that have been targeted for incarceration. Costco, which recently moved to Wichita, is known to be a good employer, paying sustainable wages to each of its employees. The action taken by Rob and others led to a conversation with Costco’s general manager that amounted to a job fair held in zip code 67214, an area hit hardest by mass incarceration and unemployment. A dialogue was opened up with Costco about what they can do to target hiring where jobs are most needed in Wichita, and ensuring that their policies do not discriminate against returned citizens.
On May 20th, FUUW volunteers joined SCA in assisting over 100 unemployed Wichitans who came out for the Costco job fair in completing resumes through a resume building workshop.
On May 12th, members of Sunflower Community Action, the Wichita Council of Elders, and The Leonard Garrett Renaissance Center convened at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Wichita for a discussion lead by returned citizens who have been removed from the community, confined behind bars, and live the everyday struggle of stigma and limited options.
The group examined the challenges faced by those reentering the community, discussed services and resources that could be created and/or shared, and began discussion on how we can move to mobilize the community around policy change here in Wichita.
On May 26th,FUUW convened another strategy discussion. This second meeting included people directly impacted by the prison industrial complex, members of FUUW, organizers from Sunflower Community Action, activists from the South Central Peace and Social Justice Center, members of the NAACP, as well as people attending a meeting for the first time.
The May 26th meeting laid out clear action steps, and many committed to moving the issue forward. Members committed to assisting SCA in the incorporation of resources aimed to meeting the struggles of returning citizens as part of their existing worker center. FUUW board president Charles Merrifield committed to assisting with researching punitive drivers license policies as part of SCA’s ongoing work, and attended a community meeting on the subject at SCA on June 2nd. Members of the Peace and Social Justice Center expressed interest in connecting with FUUW members for a letter to the editor workshop to expose the private prison industry’s influence in KS politics. FUUW members George Rivera and Louis Goseland attended a meeting at the Peace Center on June 3rd. The meeting explored the work being done to address drug policies in Kansas. Recent FUUW member Durell Gillmore is working with local activists to organize a visit to a Kansas detention facility for FUUW members, and is also opening a dialogue with UUs in Salina to learn from their success in establishing restorative practices as policy when dealing with juvenile offenders.
This group will continue to convene twice a month in order to bring together different groups and individuals with a common goal to end mass incarceration, and to move our members into action.