By: Reverend Deborah Lee & Cecilia Vasquez
Today at protests you might see signs like Abolish ICE, Abolish Police, Abolish Prisons. Abolition is a word that makes people uncomfortable. It is controversial, today and historically when it referred to the abolition of slavery, a movement that at its founding was anchored by faith inspired activists who felt that the very existence of the institution of slavery was antithetical to spiritual and moral integrity. They were up against powerful economic and political systems that still perpetuate white supremacy. But they were morally clear that every person was made in the image of God and that no one was born to be in bondage. They believed that slavery did not have to exist. It could end and people could be freed.
Perhaps there is a lesson in that for us too, as we consider modern day abolitionists who are seeking to eradicate systems that are cruel, brutal, and profit from anti-blackness and racism. Author of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Locking Up Our Own,” James Forman Jr. says, “What I love about abolition,…is the idea that you imagine a world without prisons, and then you work to try to build that world.” When we have lived with entrenched systems for so long, it can be hard to imagine a different way of organizing our society, a different way of relating and addressing issues. We invite you to envision with us what a world without prisons and ICE detention might look like and what could exist instead?
We have come to know Mario, age 43, who has been detained for 3 years in immigration detention. He was transferred into ICE custody after serving seven years in prison. Ten years ago, Mario got into a physical altercation while intoxicated which landed him in prison for a seven year sentence. Mario regrets this act and wishes that day had gone very differently. But let’s imagine how this whole situation could have been handled differently.
From a young age Mario experienced a lot of trauma and violence. He along with his family fled a violent Civil War in El Salvador, which was prolonged by US military intervention. As a refugee family, displaced by war, the family ended up in San Bernardino County in CA. The community offered little to no resources to help the family adjust to life in the US or process the trauma. Mario’s father was violent and abusive towards Mario and the family. Mario also experienced bipolar mental health disorder, but this went undiagnosed for years. Without access to resources that could have helped him, such as medical treatment, therapists, and community support, he learned to self medicate through alcohol and drugs.
It was not until Mario was incarcerated after the incident 10 years ago that he finally received a mental health diagnosis and some form of treatment. For so many individuals, jails and prisons are the first or only place where they receive mental health support. The National Alliance on Mental Illness stated, “Many individuals, especially without access to mental health services and support, wind up homeless, in emergency rooms, and often re-arrested. At least 83% of jail inmates with a mental illness did not have access to needed treatment.” What if he had received this diagnosis earlier in life, before he had a prison sentence? Public safety conversations need to address access to health services.
With proper treatment, Mario was able to be a fuller version of himself. In prison, Mario helped create a faith support group where those incarcerated formed a brotherhood helping one another. Mario was able to take a faith-based recovery program and pursue his studies of theology. He developed a ministerial gift to counsel other men. Why did Mario have to wait to be incarcerated to receive the treatment and support he needed? Why are our systems set up in a way to be reactive, rather than proactive? How could Mario have received help instead of punishment?
After serving his seven year sentence and earning parole, Mario’s family was waiting for him to finally come home. But because he is a non-citizen, an immigrant and a refugee, Mario was instead taken directly by ICE to an immigration detention facility. Instead of being able to work through his immigration legal case in the care of his family, he was deemed “dangerous” because of his prison record, and has been locked indefinitely in immigration detention for 3 years. In an abolition society, Mario would have had access to a diagnosis, medication, therapy, community and been able to be home.
An abolition society sees the sacredness in each other, and finds ways to support and honor each individual’s needs. Abolition means envisioning a way we could address problems and treat people differently based on creating systems of care. Abolition means whole-heartedly addressing the root causes of oppression and impoverishment; investing in safety and security by fulfilling human needs such as housing, education, healthcare, a sustainable planet, meaningful employment, and beloved community.
Join us in realizing that beloved community through the work we are leading, like passing measures and budgets in Los Angeles and Oakland and other cities to redirect funding from policing towards community based programs that can help prevent problems and support people through mental health and preventative programs. We are also advocating to redirect funds from ICE used to unnecessarily detain immigrants and asylum seekers towards community case management and accompaniment.
You can also support Mario’s freedom campaign here: bit.ly/FreeMarioToolkit
Let’s help bring Mario home!