When Jerrell Williams was a child, he remembers asking his mother, “What’s a prison?”
“She told me: ‘Somewhere you’ll never go.’ And she did everything she could to keep me from it. But it still has affected my life.”
Williams, a 2015 Bethel graduate, earned a degree in Bible and religion and immediately went to work for Offender Victim Ministries (OVM) in Newton as director of prison ministries. He was on campus for a chapel service and, two days later, a convocation, both devoted to justice as it affects, or is denied to, those who are incarcerated in the United States.
Williams joins a long tradition of Bethel involvement with prison ministries through OVM. Bethel students have been training and serving as M-2 (a prison visitation program at Hutchinson Correctional Facility, or HCF) volunteers for at least 25 years, says OVM executive director Libby Schrag ‘98.
About 15 years ago, John McCabe-Juhnke ’78, professor of communication arts, started a theater program at HCF, under OVM’s Prison Arts Project. He will lead his second group of students in a cooperative theater project with inmates inside HCF during the January 2016 interterm.
McCabe-Juhnke and Bethel sophomore Lacey Pfannenstiel, an M-2 volunteer, joined Williams in the Sept. 9 chapel service.
“I didn’t see myself as some kind of champion for peace and justice,” said McCabe-Juhnke. “I was just acting on intuition when I proposed a sabbatical project in 2000 of [developing] a prison theater project.”
Sometime later, however, he was relating his experiences to a friend.
“His eyes lit up. A smile spread across his face. He referenced Matthew 25. ‘John,’ he said, ‘when you go to visit these guys in prison, you’re visiting [Jesus].’”
The Scripture that comes to Williams when he thinks of prison ministry is Luke 23, where Jesus is hanging on the cross between two criminals.
“Jesus showed grace to the criminal. In our society today, we’re willing to show grace to everyone but the criminal.
“The aim of the M-2 program,” he continued, “is … to be the hands, feet and [voice] of Jesus.”
Two days later, in convocation, Williams recalled that childhood question to his mother. It wasn’t an idle one for a young African-American man growing up in urban Texas.
Though Williams’ mother worked hard to make sure he stayed in school and found good friends, he said, and though she was rewarded by seeing him go on to college and earn his degree, the reality of prison was very much before him.
“My biological dad has been incarcerated for 21 years.” His brother was in prison, though is now free. A cousin is also incarcerated.
So when he was hired as OVM’s director of prison ministries, “I wanted to do more than just run the program,” Williams said. “I wanted to dive into the issue.”
He shared some of his findings with his convocation audience. “[The statistics say] one in three black men will be incarcerated. I have two best friends. We all have college degrees. We’re all black. You’re telling me one of us is going to end up in prison? That makes no sense.”
The high rate of incarceration for blacks and Latinos is tied to the “War on Drugs,” a term and policy that Richard Nixon initiated but Ronald Reagan greatly expanded a decade later, in the 1980s, responding to an influx into the United States of crack cocaine.
“Crack cocaine doesn’t come from America,” Williams said. “People in the inner cities usually don’t have passports. Something’s missing here.”
Williams also pointed out that “as the prison population has gone up, so has the crime rate. I learned in General Psychology that ‘negative reinforcement doesn’t get children to act better.’ Locking people up in boxes doesn’t work.”
Some of the solutions Williams suggested were decriminalizing drugs (citing the example of Portugal, which did so and saw declines in both drug use and violent crime); sending people to rehab clinics and facilities, rather than prison, for nonviolent drug offenses; and ending mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses.
“Advocate for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would allow judges to override the two-year minimum [sentence] that is now required for all nonviolent drug offenses.
“Support prison rehab programs like M-2 and mentoring. Social interaction is a basic human need—interaction with people who aren’t in prison garb or a [guard’s] uniform.
“Vote!” he urged his audience. “Pay attention to politics. Watch the news. This stuff is affecting you, and me, and our families and friends.”
Finally, he said, “We need to stop the ‘criminal’ stigma. We’ve got to stop labeling. When it’s pounded into your head over and over, you’ll find a way to make it true.
“I’ve never met my biological father, because he’s been in prison my whole life. When I do meet him, I won’t look at him as a ‘criminal.’
“People have already paid their dues—give them back their lives.”