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General Conference 2012

Rally Highlights Private Prison Detention

By Leigh Rogers

Coinciding with a rally to end the private prison industry’s increased detention-for-profit policies, United Methodist Women members descended on General Conference to declare Saturday, April 28, 2012 “United Methodist Women Day.”

The rally, organized by the United Methodist Task Force on Immigration, touched on some of United Methodist Women’s core advocacy issues: immigration and racial justice. It also related to a proposed new resolution from United Methodist Women called “Criminalization of Communities of Color,” which addresses the increased incarceration and detention of immigrants and people of color, often by the private prison industry.

The Criminalization of Poverty

“Before, being undocumented in the United States was akin to a speeding ticket, a $100 fine,” said Carol Barton, staff of the Women’s Division at a United Methodist Women MeetUp April 27. “Now, being undocumented is a criminal offense, which lands you in a detention center.”

Desmond Mead, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and a member of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, told the more than 400 people at the rally that if you’re incarcerated you are less likely to get a good job, get a college degree and are more likely to recidivate. Former prisoners are also more likely to remain poor.

Decisions about the number of prisons to build are not based on crime statistics but scores of grade school standardized tests, he said. “They look at the number of low scores on third grade standardized tests, and that’s how they decide …to build prisons. ”

For-profit prison companies promote policies that ensure there are prisoners to fill the jails they build, he said. “That’s why you see 8- and 9-year-olds arrested, in handcuffs and in contact with law enforcement for things you and I may have been sent to the principal for.”

The Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith, a United Methodist pastor, whose ministry with the poor led her to live on the streets among the homeless, spoke at General Conference April 27 about her first-hand experience with homeless people and the criminal justice system. “When the justice system is seeking money and you cannot pay it, whether you’re white or of color, you are criminalized. What changes is the treatment. Both are ticketed, but one will get hit and the other won’t.”

Justice Undermined for Profit

The detention and incarceration affecting so many lives comes down to profit, Ms. Barton said. The private prison industry is lobbying federal and state governments for contracts that mandate 90 percent capacity at detention and incarceration facilities. “These subcontracts are cash cows,” Ms. Barton said. “The industry gets what it wants from governments because it says, ‘This is good for business,’ and that’s all it takes,” she said.

Lobbyist for private prisons craft many of the harsh immigration laws being adopted in places like Arizona, even as their industry profits from the increased incarceration levels, he said. “That is the perfect business model.”

Profit-driven prisons undermine the criminal justice system and treatment of prisoners and detainees. Companies cut corners on inmate rights and services and are more likely to look away at abuse, Ms. Barton said. They are also more willing to eliminate living wages and unionized guard positions. Private prisons are also more likely to hire out inmates for as little as $2 per day. This destroys communities and exacerbates distrust in law enforcement, said Mr. Mead, who has served time in prison but is now a law student at the University of Florida.

“The criminal justice system becomes about filling cells not about who has committed crimes,” Ms. Barton said.

“We need to look at the issue of migration and immigration as a humanitarian issue, not a political issue,” Ms. Smith said.

United Methodist Women Members Get Educated, Take Action

At United Methodist Women’s April 27 MeetUp, Cindy Johnson — deaconess, delegate and former Kyung Za Yim Intern for Immigrant and Human Rights from the Rio Grande Conference — shared how she organizes on behalf of detained immigrants in the border city of Brownsville, Texas.

“I educated myself about where detention centers were in my area because I didn’t know,” she said. Using Detention Watch Network’s website, she found that “usually there is a detention center near you,” she said.

Ms. Johnson started a visitation program to detainees because often they don’t have visitors. Family members are afraid of being detained also, and they don’t have attorneys to visit them.

Ms. Johnson said United Methodist Women members are always motivated to help, and care deeply about this issue. “I ask United Methodist Women to help me do this work, and they are always receptive,” she said.

Other United Methodist Women members shared how they are learning and acting on behalf of immigrant and incarcerated populations.

“In Florida, we have the largest women’s prisons in the world,” said Nan Gordon, a United Methodist Women member and deaconess from the Florida Conference. “We started the ‘Mommy Reads’ program, inviting mothers in the women’s prison to read to their kids,” she said, “but how many more women can we help if it’s about filling cells?”

Former regional missionary to Latin America for the Women’s Division, Rosangela Oliveira, shared a story about women she met on the Mexico-U.S. border and the sacrifices they made to cross.

“One woman told me she took birth control pills in order to prepare herself to put her sexuality on the line to cross the border,” she said. “Another woman dressed as a man to protect herself against sexual violence.”

The Rev. Audrey Warren, pastor of Branches United Methodist Church in Florida City, Fla., said she came into a mostly Latino congregation and became aware of how acutely detention and deportation issues affected her church body. “Immigrants are not the ‘stranger’ or the ‘other,’” she said. “They are part of our denomination, they are United Methodists.”

Leigh Rogers is public relations specialist for the Women’s Division.

Last Updated: 04/09/2014

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