University Unitarian Church Hosts Series on Criminal (In)justice System

by Sue McCarthy, Director of Programs

sueI was pleased to represent Freedom Project last month at “The Criminal (In)justice System,” an adult educational series hosted by University Unitarian Church. The five-week series included Mary Flowers, member of the Racial Equity Advisory Board in Seattle and Lisa Ashley, who has volunteered her time at the Seattle Juvenile Detention Center as a chaplain and spiritual advisor, as well as Celia Berk and Paul Kiefer, representatives from Youth Undoing Institutional Racism.

At one session Mary Weir, program coordinator for the Freedom in Education Project Puget Sound (FEPPS), talked about life inside prison, along with women who have taken FEPPS college courses at WCCW (Washington Corrections Center for Women). We share office space with FEPPS, so it was helpful to compare notes with Mary after the series.

After discussing the controversy over the new youth jail, participants gathered in small groups to talk about our current Criminal Justice System in terms of what’s working, what’s not working and what changes they would each like to see. I then shared with them a bit about Freedom Project’s programs–both in prison and in the wider community. After speaking about the impact on prisoners of our Mindfulness and Nonviolent Communication classes, I was asked why these programs are not offered in all 12 prisons in Washington state. We also discussed the availability of monthly Community Circle meetings in Seattle and Tacoma, which provide returnees (former prisoners) and community members with opportunities for on-going practice in Nonviolent Communication and Mindfulness.

Then we took a closer look at the current situation in our state’s prisons. Looking at current statistics from the Department of Corrections, it was not a surprise for most people that Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately represented in Washington state prisons. Although Blacks represent just 3 1/2% of the general population, 18% of prisoners are black. Similarly Native Americans represent just 1 1/2% of the general population, but 4 1/2% of prisoners are Native American. Almost 13% of prisoners identify as Hispanic; yet Hispanics represent just 6% of of the general population.

Contrary to popular stereotypes about who’s in prison, I shared with the audience that 71% of prisoners in Washington state are white–which reflects the predominantly white makeup of the population in this state. I also reminded them that 95% of everyone in prison will be coming back to our communities. In 2013 alone, 7,683 prisoners were released in Washington state; within five years, it’s predicted that 37% of them will be back in prison. Programs like those offered by Freedom Project, can make a difference. Our research indicates that graduates of Freedom Project programs (with a recidivism rate of 21%) are significantly less likely to commit crimes that will land them back in prison.

Many people in Washington state are in prison for non-violent offenses, such as property and drug-related crimes. However over 2/3 of the prison population have committed violent crimes. If we really want to make our communities safer, let’s think about changing the mindset of people who have resorted in the past to assault, rape, robbery and murder. To me, it makes sense during their prison time, to give these people a chance to learn other ways to meet their needs–which includes developing the crucial life skills of emotional intelligence and impulse control. Adopting the practices of Mindfulness and Nonviolent Communication can help people commit to those lifestyle changes. This has been the mission of Freedom Project for the past 14 years.

We also talked about the emerging field of Restorative Justice and the practice of Restorative Circles, which is based on Nonviolent Communication. Overall the program was an opportunity to raise community awareness and understanding about the justice issues related to our criminal legal system. Thanks to Social Justice Coordinator Jennifer Bright for including Freedom Project in this important dialogue.

We look forward to engaging with other communities of faith in similar discussions, as we explore ways to share this work with people both inside and outside prison. If you belong to an organization whose members would be interested in learning more about our work, please contact me directly or send an email message to our office: SeattleFreedomProject@gmail.com.

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