Social Justice Advocates Come Together To Talk About America’s Prison System

COMMUNITY BUILDING

Community can be difficult to define, find and explore in a world where you can access information in solitude. It has become a choice whether or not people are civically engaged, or sit remotely and choose not to participate at all. This is why when we hear remarkable stories that detail the vulnerability and transformative experiences of others, we are so curious, invested and suddenly question how we might become further involved.

Speakers Zach Presutti, S.J. and Mary Walle explained their passion for the work they do alongside incarcerated folks at Solidarity on Tap. It was the first of its kind to be hosted in New York City. Solidarity on Tap is a convening of people with social justice lenses that color their world. They are often individuals from communities that praise the values and texts that inform Ignatian Social Teaching, but are open to all who hope to engage in conversation on contemplative topics.

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(Courtesy of Teresa Carino)

A CALL TO ACTION

As Pope Francis has called people of Catholic faith to live out a Year of Mercy, the event also asked attendees to reflect on “Mercy In Action.” Presutti focused on his work for the THRIVE Jesuit Prison Project, and their call to action was for participation in creating a Learning Center for those in The Tombs detention center  located in Manhattan.

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Walle’s reflection took us through her early experiences as a college student and the current status of the oppressive system of mass incarceration in present day America. With comparative stats about what prison is like abroad and poems that asked participants to reflect. Her call to action was rooted in engagement about the issue through both active conversation, and gaining more knowledge through the powerful and well informed resources available.

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Photo of Zach Presutti S.J., LMSW and Mary Walle seated on bar stools and discussing mass incarceration with Solidarity on Tap attendees. (Courtesy of Sterling Hardway)

RAW EXPERIENCES THAT LEAVE A MARK

Presutti shared his initial opportunities as a Jesuit novice to work with those in the prison system. He took careful consideration not to exploit the stories of those that were “locked up” on the inside, while also finding parallels to the idea of every human being having something that invites them to symbolically and psychologically feel, “locked up.”

In this way, there was recognition of the humanity we all possess. This human connection stems from something deeper than the things we have done. Presutti emphasized that the prison system often convinces felons, or those with criminal records that their choices at one point in their life are the sole thing that defines them; rather than who they are as a person and what they are most passionate about.

The reality presented by Presutti is that we are all capable of making choices that can land us in prison, and the many differences are traced to issues that intersect within the system—whether they be race, mental health, economic resources or education and the list went on. The important take away being that when access to educational materials increase for people on the inside of jail cells, the greater their chances of aspiring to be more than the labels they are given by others. Most notably, those responsible for policy and any restrictions placed on them by lawmakers.

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Hillary Clinton has recently spoken more boldly about necessary reforms and changes that ought to be happening in our system that keeps so many from achieving their dreams. Donald Trump has noted in the recent Presidential debates that her husband, Bill Clinton backed a lot of those policies in the 90s and that they have led to some grim statistics.

Mary Walle, who works at the Center for Court Innovation, detailed her experiences creating theater with incarcerated folks as a college student working for the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan. Offering up the realities of returning to campus where things “looked foggy,” because no one could truly understand the lives that were impacting her, and she was unsure how to accurately dictate the stories of others without feeling like she was “using them,” she said.

The sense of displacement she often felt when returning to campus was a mutual feeling that both Walle and Presutti spoke about in their stories of engaging with others that did not visit the inside walls of prison. Walle started and ended her talk by sharing poems from a literature review that featured stories from the inside, because she herself acknowledges that the voices of those who are silenced ought to be given life outside of prison walls. Her talk was both humble and hopeful, and asked that people stay engaged by watching documentaries like 13th, or reading texts like the New Jim Crow by legal scholar Michelle Alexander.

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A fair amount of those who attended the event appeared to be recent Jesuit Volunteer Corps members.  (Courtesy of Teresa Carino)

HOW TO STAY ENGAGED WITH THE ISSUE

Many of the questions that followed were about best practices to stay engaged with the issue of mass incarceration. Especially while tackling the difficulties of communicating with the 2.4+ million people in the prison system in the United States, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The event hosts included the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, and the Ignatian Solidarity Network.

With hopes to keep attendees engaged in building community around such a vital issue, one organizer responsible for the event, Teresa Carino, offered up the chance for people to continue conversation in the near future. Collateral was provided on the pool tables of the back room of O’Hanlons bar where the event was held. One flyer showcased an upcoming event for Young Adults to socialize about issues like this that are important to them. The next Young Adults event is set to take place on November 13th, but hopefully conversations about finding community in an unlikely place continue far beyond this crowd of folks.

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(Courtesy of Teresa Carino)

Gabby Dematteis, a Former Jesuit Volunteer who did a year of service while living in Harlem, was also responsible for putting together the event of reflection and sharing. With aspirations to become a Production Manager, she has contemplative videos on her own personal Vimeo account. One video walks you through the daily Ignatian Examen with Bobby Karle, S.J. in about 5 minutes. This is another way to stay engaged introspectively, and check to in with yourself about how you are feeling. It can be applied particularly in regard to this sometimes daunting human made issue of mass incarceration in the United States.

The list of reflections goes on and on, but one thing remains constant and that is our need to stay connected to one another about the things that matter to us.

So let’s continue to do that here, please comment below if you have any other suggestions for folks!

For more on creating community by participating see

1 Simple Step to Skip your Binge TV Routine

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