A conference, “Ending Mass Incarceration,” was held at Ebenezer Baptist Church this week. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ebenezer pastor: Mass incarceration is a scar on the soul of America

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock knows that some people might question why a church is addressing the issue of mass incarceration.

Perhaps to them it’s a political issue, or a social one.

However, Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, views it as a spiritual fight and a moral mandate for action.

Human bondage, he said, enters the soul of the oppressed and insults the sovereignty of God.

“Let our people go,” he said during a service Monday night. “That’s our message.”

The Ending Mass Incarceration Conference runs through Wednesday at the church and is a faith-based movement to end mass imprisonment in the United States and its effect on communities of color and the poor.

The initiative began with Warnock, the Rev. Katharine Henderson of Auburn Seminary and Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple.

Speakers included author and activist Michelle Alexander, who wrote “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

In the audience were two members of the so-called Central Park Five, whose story was recently told in the widely viewed Netflix miniseries “When They See Us.” Thirty years ago, then-teenagers Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Antron McCray and Kevin Richardson were wrongly arrested and convicted in the 1989 beating and rape of a white female jogger in New York’s Central Park.

June 17, 2019 Atlanta: Yusef Salaam (left) and Raymond Santana, two of the the infamous Central Park Five case who were wrongfully convicted of beating and raping a woman jogger in Central Park in 1989, are recognized during the Mass Incarceration Conference church service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Monday, June 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

All the teens were African American or Latino. They served between five and 13 years in jail before being exonerated years later.

Salaam and Santana received the Ebenezer Baptist Church’s Freedom Fighter Award.

Mass incarceration can have an impact on the entire family, experts say. For instance, children of imprisoned parents often perform poorly in school and exhibit anxiety and behavioral problems, according to Child Welfare Information Gateway.

It also contributes to lower household income when one or both parents are incarcerated. And when they are released, people often have a hard time finding a good-paying job because of their criminal record.

Related: Yusef Salaam of Central Park Five: ‘Born with a target on our backs’

Warnock called mass incarceration a scandal and scar on the soul of America and said it has hit black communities particularly hard. For instance, black women are incarcerated at about double the rate of white women, according to the Pew Research Center.

“The miracle is that we are still here,” he said.

Mass incarceration is also personal.

Warnock shared that he has a brother — a Desert Storm veteran — who he says has been in federal prison for 22 years, convicted for a nonviolent offense.

He called the United States “the mass incarcerated capital of the world. Just think about it. The land of the free, the shining city on the hill shackles more people than anywhere else in the world.”

Related: Black Mama’s Bail Out helps moms get out for holiday

He issued a call for action to the faith community to build a network and infrastructure to start a movement .

He’s asking churches, mosques and synagogues to start bail-out and expungement initiatives.

“Our prayers and our praise and our protests ought to go hand in hand,” Warnock said. “I worry about folks who have a whole lot of praise and no protests.”

Toska Medlock Lee, a small-business owner from Dallas, Texas, was one of the conference planners.

Medlock Lee said she is raising two sons alone while their father serves time in prison for a white-collar crime. He’s been incarcerated for nine years.

Related: Once in prison, man now teaches about forgiveness

His incarceration has affected the family economically, emotionally, mentally and socially.

“We never talked about it,” she said. “I felt like we were strained and shamed because of the stigma associated with having a parent who was incarcerated.”

For instance, when her sons, who are now both in college, were younger, their school would have a “Donuts and Dads Day.” Because their dad was absent, she opted to keep them home from school that day. She tried to round up uncles and grandfathers to step in.

The family eventually sought counseling.

She said the conference has provided a safe space for others to share their experiences.

People should recognize the “trauma on the person in that cell, their families and communities.”

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