Eliminating the prison industrial complex

Presbyterians for Abolition supports creation of a more equitable and caring system

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Presbyterians for Abolition held an Evening of Abolition Art and Testimony in June and will have a virtual open house on Aug. 3. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — A desire to see the prison industrial complex replaced with a more equitable and caring system has brought together a group of like-minded people who are having meetings and raising funds to be donated to organizations that work with incarcerated individuals and their families.

Presbyterians for Abolition, which is loosely affiliated with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF), was born out of concerns about unjust policing, officer-involved shootings and an incarceration system that some critics say has been used to label Black and brown people as criminals and to justify discrimination.

“Presbyterian Peace Fellowship did a series of action circles and praxis circles around defund police in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and many others, and so there were folks who participated in a variety of those that said how do we want to continue this work together?” said the Rev. Lucy Waechter Webb, a member of Presbyterians for Abolition who’s also a PPF staff member. “That’s kind of how this group came to be.”

The Rev. Lucy Waechter Webb (Screenshot)

Members of the group desire a system that does not rely on punishment to hold people accountable and that is rooted in the dignity and care of all people, Waechter Webb said during the group’s first public event, An Evening of Abolition Art and Testimony, which was held online in June.

In order to abolish the current system of police, jails, prisons and courts, “we have to change our policies and our laws,” she said. “We also have to change the very culture that governs how we interact with one other around harm.”

The Rev. Liz Kearny, co-pastor of Longview Presbyterian Church in Longview, Washington, explained her motivation for joining the group this way: “Part of the reason I am here is because there are people who I care deeply about who I cannot see or talk to or hug because they are locked away in a cage,” she said during the evening event. “I long for them to be surrounded by community as they heal, not removed from community and put in a prison. That is part of the mutual interest I share in building a world that is free of police and prisons and punishment.”

The Rev. Liz Kearny

The predominantly white group, which has been meeting for about a year, embraces a philosophy that is in keeping with those espoused by Black activists such as Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” who argued that the criminal justice system is a modern-day form of racial control.

In that highly acclaimed book, Alexander maintained that “our current carceral system is really an extension of slavery and a reincarnation of white supremacy and slavery as it has evolved over time,” Waechter Webb said. In its place, “we seek to build a community that is a community of care, that puts accountability at the epicenter, and so to practice abolition is to work to undo those systems of harm, but it is also to lean into the vision of what else is possible.”

An Evening of Abolition Art and Testimony was held as a way to celebrate the vision of abolition and to give attendees of the virtual event a way to hear “testimony from people who are on the frontlines,” according to Presbyterians for Abolition, which also collected donations “in solidarity with those who are directly supporting people who are incarcerated and who hold an abolitionist commitment.”

More than $6,300 was raised through that event and other efforts, and the group hopes to eventually amass $10,000 to be split among three groups: the Solidarity Building Initiative at McCormick Theological Seminary, Voices of Jubilee and Hagar’s Community Church.

As people who’ve benefited from systems of harm, including slavery, “we feel it’s really important to be in touch with our own community and move resources and support toward the vision of abolition, which means moving money and people and energy from our predominantly white institution toward this vision of abolition and supporting Black and brown and Indigenous leadership,” Waechter Webb said.

Rojai Fentress (Screenshot)

People who shared their art and truths at An Evening of Abolition Art and Testimony included Rojai Fentress, of the Voices of Jubilee, who spent 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and now mentors incarcerated young people. “Everybody is worthy of some type of love, devotion, upliftment, encouragement to move forward, and that’s what we’re able to do with the Voices of Jubilee,” said Fentress, whose song “Let No Bullets Fly” was played during the event. “It’s an honor and a privilege for me to be in the ranks with these guys.”

Presbyterians for Abolition will use Zoom to hold an open house at 8 p.m. Eastern Time on Aug. 3. To register, go here.

For additional information about the group or to make a donation, go to https://linktr.ee/presbyteriansforabolition.


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