Bishop takes on prison, sentencing policies

Bishop Audrey F. Bronson at Sanctuary Church of the Open Door. — PHOTO BY NATHANIEL LEE

West Philadelphian minister and president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity Bishop Audrey Bronson, has added her voice to the growing number of Americans challenging the wave of incarceration sweeping the country.

Across the nation, concerned citizens, organizations and civil rights activists are holding forums, panels and meetings to address the issue.

“This means that we are on the watch for anything that is against our people and, if we find anything, we act on it,” she said. “One of the things that I discovered is that too many of our Black men are in jail for things that white people don’t get locked up for.”

One of the main contributors to mass incarceration, Bronson believes, has been the “War on Drugs” launched by former United States president Ronald Reagan. This “war has led to a wave of arrests, which, experts agree, are largely of those imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses.

“We have decided that we are going to hold a summit and raise the consciousness of people about this thing. I mean, we know it’s there but we just don’t get angry enough about it,” Bronson said.

Michelle Alexander, author of the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” was keynote speaker at a summit hosted by Bronson at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University, Sept. 19to address the matter. It was her book that, Bronson states, helps to express some of the anger missing in the public.

A panel discussion followed where panelists, including Rev. Ernest McNear of King Care; Rev. Dean Trulear of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation; and Ronald G. Waters, state representative and chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, discussed ways to address the issue.

According to Bronson, Alexander’s book details how the growth of prisons and the wave of incarceration of Black men was deliberate and the war on drugs, with the criminal codes that followed, were used as the means to expand the prison system resulting in, what Alexander states, a new form of racial discrimination tantamount to the Jim Crow laws of old.

These drug laws have been the subject of much debate and challenges, and Bronson believes that so many have been affected by the prison problem in the Black community that it will not be difficult at all to organize around the issue.

“It looks like we hit a nerve, and everybody is interested in it,” Bronson said.

During one Sunday service, Bronson asked church members to raise their hands if they either knew of or had a relative in prison. Two-thirds of those in the audience raised their hands indicating that they had a family member who was incarcerated.

“I said, ‘something has got to be done about this,’” said Bronson about the revelation.

However, Bronson is clear that this movement is not a re-entry effort but a “no-entry” one.

The former seeks to help those who were formerly incarcerated successfully return to society; the latter seeks to prevent people from going to prison in the first place.

Changing current sentencing guidelines, Bronson believes, is one way to do this, and she wants the Black church to get behind the effort.

“It looks like it’s the right time to hit this thing; everyone’s concerned about it across the country,” she said. “We’re going to make a big noise about this.”

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