Calvin students travel to D.C. to advocate on mass incarceration

On April 17, a group of 20 Calvin students set out for Washington, D.C. to attend Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD) and to tell legislators what they thought about key issues.

EAD is an annual gathering of believers who learn about and advocate against domestic and international issues of injustice.

Led by Chaplain Nate Bradford, professor Lisa Schwander and Ms. Paola Fuentes of the CRC Office of Social Justice, the Calvin student group represented a wide variety of backgrounds and academic departments.

Every year, the conference teaches about a current issue and the upcoming legislation that seeks to improve it.

After three days of intensive education, conference participants meet with state representatives and senators to advocate for the issue and request their support in passing the legislation. The theme at EAD 2015 was Mass Incarceration & Systems of Exploitation.

Almost 900 people of faith from nearly every denomination and state came together to be steeped in a weekend of learning about the current unjust state of America’s criminal justice and immigrant detention systems.

The students learned that America only holds five percent of the world’s total population, yet manages to hold 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, and that more than 60 percent of those incarcerated are racial and ethnic minorities.

Michelle Alexander calls mass incarceration a new version of the legal segregation found in the Jim Crow South prior to 1970.

The United States’ high rates of incarceration are largely the result of excessive mandatory minimum sentences, or sentences predetermined by Congress to punish certain crimes.

Most mandatory minimums deal with petty, non-violent, drug related crimes, and often require that a mere possession sends a person to jail for several years.

Because current policies don’t allow judges to consider an individual’s situation in most drug related situations, jails are teeming with disproportionately-sentenced, non-violent defendants.

It costs the government $30,000 annually to keep one inmate, which amounts to a federal prison system budget of several billion dollars.

Considering that low-income, minority defendants are at a much higher risk of incarceration for nonviolent crimes than the rest of the nation, at least some of those several billion dollars could be re-appropriated for preventative measures such as education or drug rehab.

The surge of Central American immigrants crossing the border led Congress to develop a partnership with private, for-profit prison corporations in recent years when federal facilities reached full capacity.

As one might guess from their label, these companies have a motive far beyond being a good, useful corrections facility.

Private prisons are highly influential government lobbyists; several campaigns, including Michigan Representative Dan Benishek and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have been partially financed by two of the leading private prison corporations, the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America.

For-profit prisons are heavily utilized by the government in immigrant detention. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) delivers immigrant detainees to prison facilities, and the corporations are paid with taxpayer dollars to hold them.

Policies dictate that a minimum of 34,000 detainees be held in detention every day so as to maximize profit, and if that quota isn’t met, ICE will go out and search for people to fill it.

Detained immigrants include many who were fleeing domestic abuse or trafficking and are seeking asylum, as well as whole families with small children and babies.

People who could otherwise be joining and contributing to American society are held as prisoners, often for years, without access to unspoiled food, health care or legal counsel.

After spending three days at EAD learning about the deep brokenness of our criminal justice system, everyone at the conference was weary, discouraged and burdened. Monday morning, however, attendees were given a chance to take a step toward making things better.

Several hundred conference participants spent the day visiting the offices of their own representatives and senators, presenting them with the facts of the current situation with mass incarceration and immigrant detention, and asking them to vote yes on legislation that seeks to correct these problems.

It was there in the congressional offices that the Calvin students were struck by the incredible privilege of being American citizens: that they are allowed to walk into the politicians’ offices and tell them what they want.

Calvin students’ predominant age bracket, 18 to 29,  means they will be voting for a lot longer than any other demographic, and politicians are particularly eager to reach out. Unfortunately, according to the U.S Census Bureau, only 15.4 percent of this age group voted in the 2012 elections.

Issues of injustice can be huge, overwhelming, multi-layered and infuriating, and no, students probably cannot fix them all completely. But all have at least one tool—voting—with which to help.

If you’ve read to the end of this piece, you now know something about yet another systematic injustice in our world.

To learn more about mass incarceration and how to fight it, students can view  the Sundance-winning documentary “The House I Live In” on Tuesday, May 12, in the Bytwerk Theater at 8 p.m.