EPHRATA, Pa. — Sixteen participants in Mennonite Central Committee’s Pipeline to Prison learning tour journeyed through Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system, learning about law enforcement, sentencing, incarceration and re-entry.
The September tour grew out of MCC’s commitment to education and advocacy on the racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. It aimed to help participants wrestle with the systemic and spiritual complexities of mass incarceration.
Over six days, participants traveled to Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Lancaster and Reading, visiting sites such as a minimum-to medium-security prison, an immigration detention center and a coalition of organizations supporting people with criminal records.
They also studied The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by legal scholar Michelle Alexander and held Bible studies exploring how their faith communities’ teachings on justice, reconciliation and forgiveness inform their understanding of mass incarceration in the U.S.
Tour participants came from fields including education, advocacy and Anabaptist ministry. For Sandra Perez, a member of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship and the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches’ prison reform committee, the tour offered a new perspective on a familiar phenomenon.
“Living in New York City, I’ve seen the prison pipeline up close,” Perez said. “This experience gave me a new lens through which to view the issues surrounding mass incarceration in our country.”
Perez particularly appreciated the chance to hear from leaders of local organizations about how providing support and assistance to people with criminal records impacts their communities.
Tour participants also visited Eastern State Penitentiary, a museum housed in a former Philadelphia prison. At the MCC East Coast Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pa., they packed MCC prisoner care kits, which help meet the basic human needs of people who are currently incarcerated, as well as those who are returning to their communities from prison.
Cruelty and kindness
Learning tour participant Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, associate professor of peace, justice and conflict studies at Goshen (Ind.) College, co-leads an Inside-Out class at the Elkhart County Correctional Facility. The course includes “outside” Goshen College students as well as “inside” students who are inmates.
Schrock-Shenk said she was moved by the spectrum of human interactions she witnessed.
“At one end of the spectrum, we saw people being treated in cruel and inhumane ways, and, at the other end, we saw people extending great love and kindness,” she said.
Chantelle Todman Moore, Philadelphia program coordinator for MCC East Coast; Ron Muse, MCC East Coast staff member and prison chaplain; and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, restorative justice coordinator for MCC U.S. organized the tour.
Todman Moore said she hoped tour participants, along with their faith communities, would continue to seek opportunities to share God’s love and compassion with people and communities impacted by the U.S. criminal justice system.
Grappling with the system’s spiritual complexities, studying The New Jim Crow from a Christian perspective and packing prisoner-care kits are some ways that love can be expressed.
Congregations interested in learning about the challenges and complexities of the U.S. criminal justice system from a Christian perspective can participate in MCC’s New Jim Crow project, which provides educational resources.