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Westminster church members write letters to the incarcerated, hope to change ‘broken’ prison system

Katie Marinello, Erin Snell and her wife walked together to Belle Grove Square, a park across St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Westminster. It was unusually empty for a Sunday afternoon, and the sun shined through with power, driving the three women to seek shade under a tree.

Snell and her wife sat on a bench, while Marinello sat on the ground in front of them. She handed two addresses for each of them.

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That first letter — one that will reach the hands of one of the 1.8 million people incarcerated in the United States — is the hardest, she said. Her advice to the two new letter writers: share stories about their life and ask questions.

Marinello opened her laptop and began to type. Snell and her wife gathered papers and writing utensils. They wrote together.

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The three of them are volunteers for Abolition Apostles, a national jail and prison ministry based in New Orleans. Founded in 2019, the ministry aims to provide support for people in incarceration and advocate for abolition.

And one of their chapters can be found in Westminster at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.

In 19th century, the abolitionist movement called for the end of slavery in the United States. Now, abolition means reducing or eliminating prisons and reforming the criminal justice system. The extent of changes activists and groups believe is necessary varies.

When COVID-19 triggered a statewide shutdown, Marinello, who lives in Westminster, wasn’t sure what to do with herself. Bracing for months of isolation, she looked for something that could keep her busy. It was when she came across Abolition Apostles on Instagram.

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Katie Marinello, organizer of the Abolition Apostles pen pal project, at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Westminster on Thursday, July 1, 2021.
Katie Marinello, organizer of the Abolition Apostles pen pal project, at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Westminster on Thursday, July 1, 2021. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)

She was intrigued. She had participated in a similar letter-writing program corresponding with people in solitary confinement. So, Marinello became a volunteer. As the pandemic-ridden days dragged by, she reported how her week was and asked her pen pals how they were. Each envelope carried a new photo of her cat Peach, a 19-month-old orange shorthair. The photos, she was told, are now displayed in a mosaic on the wall of one of her pen pals.

Once a month, Marinello joins a chapter meeting led by Odessa Armstrong, the Maryland chapter coordinator, on Zoom. The two of them and other letter-writers engage in political education, Armstrong said, talking about what actions they can take when it comes to prison abolition. They also offer guidance and support for any challenges that may come up in letters.

Prison abolitionists argue that there is a historic link to the history of slavery and the history of segregationist systems, like Jim Crow laws, that overwhelmingly led to the incarceration of Black people, said David Brazil.

Brazil, who cofounded Abolition Apostles with his wife Sarah Pritchard in New Orleans, says there must be a shift in resources from police departments to social services programs.

Ending prison and policing is necessary, he said, but it won’t happen without creating alternative programs.

There must be financial investments on early childhood education, food security, job programs, he said — human necessities and needs that, if lacked, may drive people to committing crimes and be incarcerated.

Katie Marinello started an "Abolition Apostles" pen pal program at her church, St. Paul's United Church of Christ.
Katie Marinello started an "Abolition Apostles" pen pal program at her church, St. Paul's United Church of Christ. (Clara Longo de Freitas)

For Marinello, Abolition Apostles and its monthly meetings create spaces to discuss and learn about the prison-industrial complex through a nonacademic lens.

“Our prison system is not just broken,” she said. “It’s working exactly how it’s designed.”

The criminal justice system incarcerates Black and brown men are a higher rate than other races and ethnicities. Nationwide, about 32% of an average state’s prison population is Black, according to a 2019 report from Justice Police Institute. The same report found that the state of Maryland has the highest percentage of incarceration of Black men, which makes up more than 70% of the state’s prison population.

The latest census found that 13.4% of U.S. residents and 31.1% of Marylanders identify as Black or African American.

St. Paul’s United Church of Christ officially launched their local pen pal program on May 23, after Marinello presented it to the anti-racist leadership team. The ministry’s founders Brazil and Pritchard provided an orientation for the church on May 11.

With big flashes of rainbow displayed on the building, the church puts itself in a position of attentiveness to social justice. In 2008, St. Paul’s was the first church in the county to become “open and affirming” to LGBTQIA+ communities. In 2018, it became committed in supporting those with mental illness, substance abuse issues and brain disorders.

More recently, the church adopted an anti-racism initiative last September. Erin Snell, the church’s minister of social justice, said the church is working on efforts to dismantle racism in the community. This partnership with Abolition Apostles, she said, is a way for the church to be more intentional in its anti-racism.

Both Snell and Marty Kuchma, a pastor at the church, see the letter writing as a first step. Their intention is to continue to support the people in incarceration and the movement in larger ways — like writing letters for parole boards, providing material support and lobbying for changes in the criminal justice system.

“To me it really becomes an act that emerges out of the core of being Christian,” Kuchma said. “To reach out to people who are marginalized.”

Abolition Apostles make donations to people’s commissary, offer legal support and visit people in prisons. The ministry also has a reentry support system that connects volunteers with people returning from incarceration.

Annie Cumberland had just started attending services at St. Paul’s when she learned about the pen pal program. She jumped at the chance to do something different and that would help others in a way that aligned with her faith. Like Kuchma, Cumberland says Christianity calls for not forgetting those who are incarcerated.

“I wouldn’t know how to do that on my own, and I don’t think I would have thought about it on my own,” Cumberland said.

In the past, St. Paul’s has partnered with organizations like the local chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Equal Justice Initiative for events tackling racism, Snell said.

“Part of that is also talking about and coming to terms with the current systemic racism that we see in the prison system,” Snell said.

Most people who are incarcerated experienced some form of trauma before entering the system, Edward McCurty, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist based in Maryland and Washington, D.C., said. They may have been raised by a parent who was physically or emotionally abusive or lived in a home with substance abuse. This trauma is often the root of behavior that lead people, usually in their teenage years, to their first encounter with the criminal justice system, McCurty said.

When people are incarcerated as teenagers or young adults, they are unequipped to deal with the trauma that is embedded within the system, McCurty said. The part of the brain that deals with rational thinking and decision making is not fully developed until the age of 25. And incarceration denies opportunities for social and emotional development, he said.

What his patients who had been incarcerated said that helped them psychologically in prison was keeping connections with the outside world, McCurty said.

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Prison experience erases a person’s identity. They are assigned a number, referred as digits and become a statistic. Receiving paper letters that give them news from loved ones and showed that they were still remembered and missed. Those connections made their transition back to the community easier, McCurty said.

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But people who lose connections with the world have no social capital, McCurty said. They have no one to call for support when they need.

“That’s a rich resource that most of us take for granted,” he said.

When there’s an absence of relationship with family and friends, letter-writing programs and other organizations that work with people in incarceration become a “surrogate family member,” McCurty said.

“There’s something very special about a person taking the time to sit down with a piece of paper and a pen or a pencil and write a letter to you,” he said.

Abolition and the restructuring of the criminal justice system are important, McCurty said. But right now, this system exists and traps 1.8 million people nationwide, primarily Black and brown men.

“We have to have organizations that are dedicated to cutting the cords and ties that bind people to the criminal justice system,” McCurty said.

People returning from incarceration often leave those facilities with hallmark symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders. Many may try to cope by turning to substances, he said. Reentry requires psychological, financial and social support, so that the person can be a contributing member to society.

These programs, he said, function as midwifes, designed to help this person give birth to who they want and can be.

“To be imprisoned is to experience a form of social death,” he said. “Coming home is being reborn.”

Nationwide, there are currently 2,500 people who are incarcerated in the Abolition Apostles program, and about 1,000 people writing from the outside. Twelve of these people participate through St. Paul’s letter-writing program. Volunteers are encouraged to write to two people.

While organizers try to be mindful with the distance when pairing correspondents, right now the goal is just to make a connection. Armstrong said that the ministry will write for everyone who signs up, regardless of the crime for which they were convicted. Prisons are designed to hide people, to throw them away, she said — Abolition Apostles doesn’t do that.

“And you don’t have to be Christian or have any type of religion to participate,” she said. “We just mean the world ‘apostle’ as in sharing the message of abolition … that doesn’t come with a caveat of a certain religious belief.”

White Christians have used excerpts of the Bible to justify slavery of Black people. Many “sins” were committed in the name of church or Christianity, Brazil said, including colonization and militarism. Contemporary Christians must acknowledge and take responsibility — and that leads to abolition, he said.

“Pen paling is a low-threshold, high-ceiling activity,” he said. “It’s easy to get involved … but once you start, it opens your eyes to a lot of issues.”

Dennis Harmon, a major at Carroll County Detention Center, said a letter-writing program is good for people in incarceration, especially those in long-term facilities.

“If they’re going to establish a relationship with somebody that can give them support once they leave and guidance and what not, I believe that definitely helps a lot,” he said.

After a year of writing letters back and forth, Armstrong and her correspondent in Texas have talked about books they’ve read, religion and God and the city of Baltimore. Armstrong has connected with his family, and he has sent her his poems.

Every day, she sits on her brown meditation cushion. Natural light illuminates the room that used to be a porch, now closed off with yellow-dotted plants overflowing the space. Armstrong lights incense, leaving it to rest at a dresser, right by a stone collection and photographs of family members who passed away.

Once the clock hits 7:30 p.m., she closes her eyes.

Almost 2,000 miles away from her home in Baltimore, a man waited on his cell at a prison in Texas. Once he figured it was 7:30 p.m. for Armstrong, he, too, began to meditate.

Armstrong struggles with sticking to a routine and being consistent with meditation, she said. But Thomas keeps her accountable.

“It’s like ‘alright, well, Thomas is waiting for me,’” she said.

They empty their minds for an hour, seeking for some peace.

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