MILWAUKEE — Eleven feet by fifteen feet is the size of a prison cell, but it’s also the name of a new campaign to reduce the number of inmates in Wisconsin by 50 percent to roughly 11,000 inmates by 2015.
The “11×15 campaign for Safer, Healthier Communities,” started Monday, Feb. 20, with more than 50 supporters explaining the initiative during a press conference in front of the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility.
“Far too many of our young men are in jail for non-violent crimes, offenses that they could get treatment for instead of prison,” Rev. Willie E. Brisco, president of MICAH, (Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope), said.
“We’re going to put common sense on the front burner. We’re going to make sure that the men and women who need treatment get it so they can come back to the community as whole citizens and we’re going to make sure our state officials and public officials know how we feel about this,” he said.
The “11×15” campaign has support from Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran and Islamic leaders. Backers of the campaign used Minnesota as an example of a state that has population and demographics similar to Wisconsin, but a lower incarceration rate.
The event was sponsored by WISDOM, a network of grassroots organizations comprised mostly of religious congregations of many denominations that work to have a common voice on issues of social justice. Similar events took place the same day throughout the state.
“I think the way the prison system can go warehouse people, it doesn’t look at people, their true dignity,” Capuchin Fr. Jim Zelinski from St. Benedict the Moor Parish, said in a telephone interview with your Catholic Herald. “(In) Catholic social teaching, the first principle is the dignity of the person before God and before others.”
Fr. Zelinski said this campaign aims to not only lower the incarceration rate but to provide alternatives to jail such as rehabilitation.
“It’s for the benefit of many, many individuals who don’t have an opportunity or their future is very dismal now because there’s no support for them,” Fr. Zelinski said. “You try to reach out to people – their potential – and try to develop it.”
At the press conference, Rev. Brisco, assistant minister of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, said it would take patience to achieve the results needed.
“We didn’t get this way over night and we’re not going to get it corrected over night, and it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to get this started,” he said. “We’re actually having a prison community within our community.”
Jeremy Stein, hazzan (cantor) of the Congregation of Beth Israel, Glendale, said a prayer at the event. He said his faith influenced everything he does and he felt honored to be involved in the campaign.
“I’m definitely for, really across the board, re-examining how our current system works, if we can re-examine it to make it more effective,” Stein said.
For Joyce Ellwanger, of Hephatha Lutheran Church, this is an important issue. When protesting the School of Americas at Ft. Benning, Ga., she was arrested for trespassing on the base and sentenced to six months in Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut.
“I went in and, for no reason, was told there wasn’t a bed suitable for me. I was put into solitary confinement,” Ellwanger explained to your Catholic Herald. “I was put in the hole for 16 days … these kinds of things happen and you can ask questions, but you’re not going to get answers.”
Ellwanger said she tried to stay away from violent criminals, but there is a culture of intimidation in prison that strongly affects those who are mentally ill and can’t defend themselves.
Before the rally at the detention facility, a meeting was held at St. Benedict the Moor to strategize and inform members about the prison system. For Ellwanger, this confirmed what she already knew.
“It was said in the meeting we just came from (that) 85 percent of the people in prison are there because of crimes that are related to their addiction or to mental illness and I saw that. I saw that when I was incarcerated,” Ellwanger said.
She added that she appreciates the effort religious leaders are putting forth to accomplish this goal.
“The 11×15 campaign is a really visionary campaign,” Ellwanger said. “It crosses the boundaries of politics whether you’re Republican, Democrat, Green Party, Independent, Tea Party, whatever you are, I think you can see the value in getting involved in this campaign.”
Rev. Brisco said they have reached out to many local politicians but only one has claimed to support 11×15. Brisco didn’t want to name who it was to not show any sort of favoritism or endorsement toward a candidate.
Fr. Tom Mueller, pastor of St. Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church, attended the informational meeting and rally.
“There are people in prison who don’t need to be there,” Fr. Mueller said. “There are people (if) in other countries and even other states, (who) would not be in prison. They would be going under treatment for non-violent crimes.”
He reflected on Mark 25:31-46, the last judgment, and explained there needs to be a place for rehabilitation for inmates.
“It’s really a matter of taking the Gospel seriously, not just acting out of fear or vengeance,” Fr. Mueller said.
Wisconsin’s Roman Catholic bishops plan to discuss the “11×15 Campaign for Safer, Healthier Communities” when they meet with Wisconsin Catholic Conference officials on Wednesday, Feb. 29.