Cross-Cultural, Urban, Reformed, Ecumenical

Mass Incarceration: Myths, Realities, Actions


  • One out of five incarcerated people in the world is incarcerated in the U.S.
  • The largest majority of people in U.S. prisons are poor and the poorest are women and people of color.
  • Women’s state prison populations are growing faster than men’s.
  • Whites are underrepresented in the prison population and African Americans are overrepresented.

Prison Policy Initiative

Are local communities to be concerned about these statistics? How can we work for change? LeadingChange asked three advocates for people who are incarcerated to share some thoughts and ways local communities can address a national problem.

Learn more from these and other criminal justice advocates at an online webinar, Know Your Power as a Juror. This Solidarity Building Initiative event will be held Saturday, May 1 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. CST. Register here

Love your neighbor

“After serving four years in a federal prison, I was released in March of last year…right when the coronavirus was starting to spread more rapidly across the nation. Having been an attorney for more than 20 years, I look at my experience with the prison system through a very different lens. What I had thought was a system about public safety and the reduction of harm was an institution that was built to punish. No one is better off for having gone through the prison system…not emotionally, not mentally, not physically. It’s been documented that for every year a person is in prison, her life expectancy goes down by two years. There is nothing rehabilitative about it. Its whole foundation started with slave patrols…everything grew out of how the country handled people who had tried to escape slavery. That’s what was planted, and you can’t grow something different from that seed. That’s why I’m for its total abolishment. 

While I’m an abolitionist, I do believe that people have to be held accountable for their actions, but accountability doesn’t have to look like our prison system. There are restorative, transformative and reparative justice practices that can help us address the harms that people have committed so that people can process their own hurt and get at the root of the problem. 

Outside of family, the greatest support I received was from other women who were imprisoned with me. They provided me with a care package when I arrived. They gave me things you might think would come from the institution – toiletries, comfortable clothes, snacks because the stress and trauma of entering prison can shut you down to the point that you don’t even want to go eat. They came by to check on me, to pray with me, to see if I just needed someone to talk to. I learned how to provide the same support when other women came in. This was my first up close and personal experience with mutual aid. 

I think it’s so important what Bryan Stevenson said in Just Mercy. We can’t be a nation that only judges people by their worst act. We have to look at the whole person. We’ve got to get close enough to understand what’s going on. As stated by Glenn E. Martin, those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

I do a lot of work to dismantle the system through policy changes. I’m chipping away at it…taking away little pieces at a time to help free some of the people there. I’m told we are to love our neighbors and the people living in our prisons are our neighbors, our sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers. We need to get back to that simple, basic fact about the neighbors who live in our prisons.”

Avalon Betts-Gaston, J.D.
Steering Committee Member, Illinois Alliance for Reentry and Justice
Board Member, Community Renewal Society
Advisory Council, National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls


Make it personal

“Most people don’t see how they are part of the criminal justice system, but we all are. Every criminal case is done in our name. It’s always the people of the United States versus someone. When the system inflicts cruelty, when the system separates parents from their children, when the system withholds health care and an incarcerated woman doesn’t know that she has breast cancer until it’s in stage 4, it’s we the people who take part in that. We are part of the intergenerational trauma that children suffer when a parent, especially a mother, is trying to parent from a prison pay phone and being charged far more than any of us on the outside has to pay for the same call. If we want to live in a healthy, prosperous community, we need to change direction in a radical way.

Other countries have radically different and healthier approaches to dealing with people who caused harm. For instance, in Germany punishment is loss of liberty…that’s it. Prisons look like college dorms…people get mental health care…learn skills…families come to visit. Here in the United States, we isolate the people who need the most support.

No one thinks that someone who does harm should be able to walk away without consequences. But is our only consequence isolation? There are better ways that can make it more likely that a person returning from prison can live in community. Education, training and mental health care are to be part of what’s provided for a person to be safely reintegrated into society. We give people years of trauma and harm and mistreatment and expect something different.

But more important, criminal legal reform doesn’t start in jails and prisons. Communities need to be places where transformative justice work can be done. Prison abolition is about more than reducing the number of people who go to prison. What we’re really saying is that investing money and resources to create thriving communities will reduce the prison population sooner than anything else. We have to reimagine criminal legal reform in ways that don’t even look like criminal legal reform. It’s about setting up farmers markets in low-income communities so that people have healthier food and places to gather. It’s well-resourced community centers and libraries on wheels so that children have access to supervised activities and books. It’s working to pass legislation like Primary Caretakers bills that would require courts to look for community-based alternatives to imprisonment for parents who are the primary caregivers of their minor children. It’s about creating educational, economic and political power that elects people who care about people. Then a few years down the road, you wake up and the prison population has gone down. Unless we deal with the underlying causes…unless we seal off the pipelines to prison, our society will not reflect who we say we are.” 

Catherine Sevcenko
Senior Legal Counsel
National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls


Get educated about the issues

“In my role with the city of Philadelphia, I find that the faith community is just as diverse in its perspectives on issues of mass incarceration as any other group of people. We have those seeking its abolition, those wanting to reform the institution, those advocating for more training of police around de-escalation, and those working to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing to keep people out of the system all together. What we have in common is that we all acknowledge that there is a problem. That’s the starting point. From there we need to understand how we got here. American history was revised so that we can be comfortable with what we're doing in our jails and prisons. We know that American policing developed as an institution in response to enslaved Africans who were trying to escape slavery. That is verifiable. But we don't connect the dots to today’s system that is also about keeping a group of people under control. 

I'm not suggesting that there shouldn't be accountability or justice, but what I am saying is we need to understand how we got here. And once we become aware, how do we live? I think it’s important to realize that much of the judicial system is local. It’s important to know what the laws and policies are in your municipality and state as they relate to sentencing…what the process is for securing bail…and whether the public defender’s office is supportive of restorative justice approaches. 

If there are advocacy groups in your city that are fighting for the rights of incarcerated people, knowing them and volunteering with them can give greater voice to the issue. We need to hold leaders to the moral standard they claim to have. We need people who can speak prophetically into conversations when people say one thing but do another. When the pandemic hit, it was members of many faith-based organizations that asked for people who didn’t need to be incarcerated at that moment to be released. How can you provide for your health and safety when you have no control over the space you are in?

I have the good fortune to teach a theology class at a state prison for Villanova University. I had been told that many of our best and our brightest were incarcerated. Learning with the men who were in my prison classroom…mostly Black men – some who were going to be there forever – proved that. These men have a way of doing theology…of asking critical questions…of understanding what it means to be faithful that we on the outside could benefit from in real time. The stakes are high in the prison classroom. Saying “Black Lives Matter” is not an abstract concept. That is a question they have to answer with their own lives every day. Our carceral system has been grounded in shame and punishment. We don’t believe that people can be redeemed. We are locking our communities out of the wisdom and experiences that incarcerated men and women have to offer us.” 

Naomi Washington-Leapheart
Director, Faith-based and Interfaith Affairs for the Mayor’s Office, Philadelphia
Adjunct Professor, Villanova University