Cross-Cultural, Urban, Reformed, Ecumenical

Building Solidarity with Students Who Are Incarcerated

06-01-2020 by

Jia Johnson

“For folks on the inside, we call the world that place that exists beyond the prison walls. We talk about the world as being outside, beyond the prison gates. The whole world is out there. And we are not a part of that world.” 

~ Yohance Lacour

These are the words of my dear friend Yohance, a formerly incarcerated entrepreneur. He shared them as part of the WriteNow: Your Words Matter event. In May, Rebecca Bretz, a local community organizer with Solidarity Letters, and I co-convened the conversation on letter-writing relationships during incarceration and stories of impact. As part of McCormick’s commitments to students in the certificate program at Cook County Jail, we launched a pen pal initiative in response to the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated students. In the absence of educational programs, visitations and increased isolation, disconnection and uncertainty, at Cook County Jail—the nation’s hotspot for COVID-19—we invited the seminary community to be part of a solidarity letter-writing community by writing words of hope, encouragement and prayer to residents at the jail. This was one of several opportunities included in our COVID-19 Solidarity Initiative with Incarcerated Learners at Cook County Jail.

During the conversation, the panelist spoke of the mutually supportive and transformational experience that pen pal relationships provided for them while incarcerated. One panelist shared from the point of view of a letter-writer on the outside. She spoke of her relationship with her incarcerated letter-writing companion as being encouraging, edifying, and inspiring. These writing relationships served as a bridge for community-building and shifting the narrative and stigmas around incarceration and criminality, creating a revolving pathway from the inside to the outside.

With this in mind, on April 9th, a federal judge denied a motion to immediately release or transfer individuals incarcerated at the jail. Instead Judge Matthew Kennelly imposed increased safety measures such as speedy testing for symptomatic prisoners, enforced social distancing practices, adequate distribution of PPE. In response to the public health crisis unfolding within prisons, jails and detention centers, a coalition of organizations from across Chicago mobilized a visual images of signs from behind the jail windows that read “Help We Matter 2” and “Save US”.

I thought to myself even if all the advocacy, efforts and energy directed at COVID-19 decarceration does not materialize into mass release at the very least the women and men locked behind the walls of the largest single site jail in the country, they will know that they were not forgotten. They will know that they were seen. They will know that they are part of a world beyond the prison walls made up of justice-makers and solidarity-builders standing for them and with them, raising a collective voice to say THEY MATTER 2.

With commitments of solidarity-building at the forefront of my thoughts, in April, I wrote a letter to the students in the certificate program at the jail to share with them the many ways McCormick was committing to being in solidarity with them. Here’s a bit of what I shared:

With commitments of solidarity-building at the forefront of my thoughts, in April, I wrote a letter to the students in the certificate program at the jail to share with them the many ways McCormick was committing to being in solidarity with them. Here’s a bit of what I shared:

Out of this institutional culture to act justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with God, a pilot Certificate in Theological Studies was birthed. Today, we have grown into the program Solidarity Building Initiative for Liberative Carceral Education at CCJ.

As program director, I am pleased to present to the McCormick community the program logo (seen at right).

The image of the tree with raised fist etched into the bark and colorful leaves changing with the seasons symbolizes the ways in which the program pillars are rooted to grow in relationship with communities impacted by hyper incarceration. Collectively the program praxis is oriented around 1) community and collaboration; 2) solidarity-building and justice-making; 3) creation of life-giving works and 4) growth as a creative process of transformation and liberation.  The late ancestor, Dr. James Cone, rightly asserts that salvation means liberation. The heartbeat of the program is Jesus’ prophetic words in Luke 4:18:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed”

We invite you to join us in our solidarity-building and justice-making efforts by supporting the PPE for CCJ fundraiser effort. To provide protection and raise awareness for incarcerated individuals impacted by the pandemic at Cook County Jail, Community Partners in Dialogue-CCJ and McCormick Theological Seminary established the “PPE for CCJ” Initiative and Limited Joint Fundraising Effort. We aim to raise up to $5,000 by June 31st. Learn more about the PPE for CCJ fundraiser here