Thursday, October 1, 2015

PC (USA) Signs on to Letter Urging President Obama to Recommend Clear Path towards Elimination of Solitary Confinement

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

As representatives of civil and human rights organizations, religious organizations, faith-based and community leaders, defense attorneys, and mental health professionals, we applaud your recent historic remarks recognizing that solitary confinement does nothing to rehabilitate those who are incarcerated. We also welcome your announcement that the U.S. Attorney General will conduct a national review of the practice in prisons and jails across the United States. We are writing to urge that this review result in recommendations that create a clear pathway toward the elimination of the use of long-term and indefinite isolation in the United States.

Following two Congressional hearings on solitary confinement, a highly critical report on the federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) use of solitary confinement by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in May 2013; and an independent audit of BOP’s use of solitary confinement released in February 2015, it is abundantly clear that solitary confinement is overused and abused across the country. In fact, the audit of BOP’s practices found that more than 10,000 people were subject to solitary confinement in federal prisons on any given day in 2013. In some of these units, terms of solitary confinement average nearly four years. In light of these findings, the expert auditors recommended that the agency take immediate steps, including:

•  Stopping the practice of placing persons with serious mental illness in solitary;
•  Stopping the practice of placing vulnerable prisoners in solitary “for their own protection”;
•  Stopping the practice of releasing prisoners directly back to the community from solitary confinement units without any re-entry services; and
•  Limiting the mandatory amount of time prisoners are held in solitary confinement.

Despite the urgency of the audit’s findings, to date, BOP has not made public any plans for implementation of its recommendations. It is imperative they do so without delay.
Nationwide, on any given day, more than 80,000 people, including children and persons with mental illness, are held in conditions of solitary confinement in state and federal prisons for months, years, even decades, with many more facing conditions of extreme isolation in jails, detention centers, and juvenile justice facilities throughout the United States. Thousands are released directly from solitary back into our communities profoundly damaged.

Neuroscience, ethics and international human rights law widely consider solitary confinement a form of torture. Indeed, decades of research demonstrate the harms of
solitary confinement on human beings. Its systematic and widespread use in our criminal justice system compromises our stated commitments to human rights, human dignity, the human potential for redemption, and public safety.

States and jurisdictions across the country are implementing policy changes that focus on alternatives to solitary confinement. Some have abolished the practice for persons under the age of 18, pregnant women, and for persons with mental illness. Several states are also considering legislative proposals that embrace the recommendations of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, which include prohibiting placement in solitary confinement beyond 15 consecutive days. Supporting and incentivizing such reforms across the country and in the BOP should be an explicit goal of the Attorney General’s study of solitary confinement.

For the well-being of the men and women incarcerated in federal prisons, the communities to which they will return, and the staff employed by federal facilities, we urge you to ensure the implementation of the BOP auditors’ recommendations without delay. We further urge you to ensure a national review that prioritizes humane alternatives to prolonged solitary confinement, including mental health treatment, rehabilitation, and a clear path to the elimination of long-term isolation. Such a review should be completed with enough time for your administration to be able implement its recommendations.
The torture of prolonged solitary confinement compromises public safety, increases recidivism, is immoral and indeed has no place in any civilized society. Now is the time to act to ensure it has no place in our own.


African American Ministers in Action (AAMIA)
African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC)
African Methodist Episcopal Minister’s Coalition for Redemption and Justice
Alaska Innocence Project
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
American Friends Service Committee
American Humanist Association
Arizona Center for Disability Law
Arizona Innocence Project
Arizona Justice Project (Justice Project, Inc.)
The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325
Bend the Arc Jewish Action
Brookline PeaceWorks
Brooklyn Defender Services
California Families Against Solitary Confinement
California Innocence Project
California Prison Focus
Campaign for Youth Justice
Center for Public Representation
Center for Race, Religion, and Economic Democracy
The Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights
Children's Defense Fund
Children's Defense Fund-Ohio
Children's Law Center, Inc., Covington, Kentucky
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada
Church of the Brethren, Office of Public Witness
Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants – International (International CURE)
Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants – Virginia Inc. (Virginia CURE)
Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants –Nevada (NV-CURE)
Community Legal Aid Society, Inc
Connecticut Innocence Project
The Correctional Association of NY
Council of Bishops, United Methodist Church
Criminal Justice Policy Coalition
DeafCAN!, Deaf Community Action Network
Disability Rights Iowa
Disability Rights Maine
Disability Rights Washington
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon
EMIT: End Mass Incarceration Together, working group of Unitarian Universalist Mass Action
Family UNIty Network of Imprisoned People
Florida Council of Churches
Florida Institutional Legal Services Project
Florida Justice Institute
The Fortune Society
Franciscan Action Network
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Global Justice Institute
Hip Hop Caucus
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
I.S.P. Consulting
Illinois Coalition Against Torture
Illinois Innocence Project
Incarcerated Nation Corp.
Innocence & Justice Clinic, Wake Forest University School of Law
Innocence Project
Interfaith Action for Human Rights
Legal Aid Justice Center, Charlottesville, Virginia
Life After Innocence
Maine Council of Churches
Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC)
Maryland Disability Law Center
Mass Incarceration Working Group, First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington (MA)
Medical Mission Sisters Alliance for Justice
Metropolitan Community Churches
Midwest Innocence Project
Montana Innocence Project
Muslim Justice League
NAACP Maine State Prison Branch
NAACP Portland Maine Branch
National Alliance on Mental Illness – Huntington (NAMI – Huntington)
National Alliance on Mental Illness – New York State (NAMI-NYS)
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI National)
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Council of Churches
National Disability Rights Network (NDRN)
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement
New York City Jails Action Coalition
New York Law School Innocence Clinic
North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence
North Carolina Stop Torture Now
Office of Social Justice of the Christian Reformed Church
Ohio Innocence Project
Pax Christi Massachusetts
Pax Christi USA
Pennsylvania Council of Churches
Pennsylvania Innocence Project
Peoples' Action for Rights and Community (PARC)
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)
Princeton's Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR)
Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC)
The Prison Law Office
Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts
Prisoners' Legal Services of New York
Protection & Advocacy Project (Disability Rights North Dakota)
Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. (P&A, Columbia, SC)
Ramsay Merriam Fund
The Real Cost of Prisons Project
Resources for Organizing and Social Change (ROSC)
Sisters of St. Joseph Non-Violence Committee
Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood NY
Social Action Linking Together (SALT)
Social Workers Against Prolonged Solitary Confinement
Solitary Confinement. Org
Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)
St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Manhattanville
St. Susanna Peace and Justice Committee, Dedham MA
Sylvia Rivera Law Project
Tamms Year Ten
T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
Union for Reform Judaism
Unitarian Universalist Association
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society
University of Miami Innocence Clinic
Uptown People's Law Center
Virginia Council of Churches
Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
West Virginia Innocence Project
WISDOM of Wisconsin
Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) Boston Branch
Wrongful Conviction Clinic at IU McKinney
Wrongful Conviction Project, Office of the Ohio Public Defender

cc: U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The PC(USA) Signs On to Faith Letter on Syrian Crisis

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President,

We write to you as Christian organizations and denominations with strong interest and concern regarding the Syria crisis. Many of us maintain close connections with Christians and other faith communities in the Middle East, as well as civil society organizations, and have been responding to the crisis in various ways for the last four years. 

Recent media attention has focused primarily on the plight facing refugees trying to enterEurope. But not enough attention is being paid to the dire circumstances that have led these refugees to make the difficult decision to leave their homes in the first place.

1. The root of the crisis is the devastating civil war in Syria, which has been raging now for more than four years. As a result of the war, half of all Syrians are displaced from their homes and more than 220,000 have died, according to the United Nations.

Rather than responding with deeper military involvement, the armed involvement of alloutside actors, including the United States, must cease. This includes the provision of arms and weaponry, as well as training, to opposition groups. The U.S. must urge its allies to do the same. 

2. The U.S. government must make finding a negotiated solution to the Syria crisis a top diplomatic priority. This will require continued dialogue with Russia and the willingness to enter negotiations without preconditions, such as the requirement that President Bashar al-Assad step down immediately. In addition, Iran and all involved actors will need to be at the table if a sustainable solution is to be found. 

3. Humanitarian assistance for people suffering from the brutal impacts of the war is vastly underfunded. Despite the difficult circumstances, many people wish to remain in Syria or nearby, in neighboring countries. 

But their options are bleak, as the Syrian economy is in disarray and most refugees in neighboring countries are unable to work legally. As the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies have been forced to reduce or eliminate food vouchers, rent subsidies and other forms of assistance, and families exhaust their reserves, many feel they have no option but to leave. 

We commend the generous commitment of $4.5 billion that the U.S. has already made toward humanitarian needs in the region. But the U.S. can and must do more and should continue to encourage others in the international community to increase their contributions as well.

4. The U.S. should open its doors to receive many more refugees. Even with more adequate funding for humanitarian assistance, some Syrians feel they will never be able to return home safely and wish to resettle in a third country. Many in our faith communities have a long and rich history of welcoming refugees. We encourage the U.S. to accept more Syrian refugees and to expedite the processing of these applications.

After more than four years, the Syria crisis feels intractable. But it is a human-made, political crisis. We can find a way forward, if we are willing to dedicate our collective long-term vision and energies to resolving the crisis.

May you experience wisdom, courage and strength in the days ahead.


American Friends Service Committee
Church of the Brethren
Conference of Major Superiors of Men
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ
Marquette University Center for Peacemaking
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. 
Pax Christi International
Presbyterian Church (USA)
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Office of Public Witness Welcomes Nora Leccese as New Interim Associate for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues

Nora Leccese joined the staff of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness in early September. She serves as the Interim Associate for Domestic and Environmental Issues.
Leccese, is not new to the OPW. She was assigned to the OPW as an Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Congressional Hunger Center for a year long fellowship. During that time she researched equitable food systems in Montpelier, Vermont and served the Office Of Public Witness where she focused on criminal justice reform and economic justice.
She is a graduate of the University of Colorado with a degree in economics and a focus on community leadership. An activist and advocate by nature she is deeply committed to food and climate justice. In her home state of Colorado, she co-founded and chaired the board of a national food rescue non-profit and organized with the fossil fuel divestment movement.
Leccese serves in the capacity that was held by Leslie Woods for ten years. We welcome Nora to the justice advocacy work of the PCUSA and Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministries.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Economic Recovery Concentrated with the Wealthy, Poverty Rate Unchanged

A Response to the 2014 US Census Poverty Data

Last week, the US Census Bureau released their annual report on poverty data, and we at the Office of Public Witness wish to highlight the frustrating continuity of these data in the public square. The poverty rate in the U.S. remains statistically unchanged between 2013 and 2014, but still unacceptably high at 14.8 percent. In the Census Bureau’s report, we received more evidence that the lion’s share of the economic recovery has gone to those who already enjoy abundance. The number of people living in poverty remained stubbornly at 46 million in 2014, and there are still more than 15 million children living in poverty in this country.  Damaging racial inequality continues, with more than one in three African American children (36 percent) and about one-third of Latino children (32 percent) living in poverty. For white non-Hispanic children, the poverty rate was 12.3 percent[1]. It is deeply troubling to see evidence of such widespread hardship while the most wealthy and powerful continue to reap the benefits of our slow economic recovery.
Graphic Courtesy of the US Census Bureau

While the situation is grim, we lift up the fact that these data show government programs like low income tax credits, housing programs, social security and SSI help alleviate the burden of poverty. The Census Bureau finds low income tax credits lift 5 million children out of poverty. In addition, the proportion of people who live without health insurance dropped substantially. Last year, 10.4 percent of people reported they had been uninsured the whole year, down from 13.3 percent in 2013.

In response to the Census Bureau’s findings, the Reverend J. Herbert Nelson, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Director for Public Witness said:

“We believe that all persons living in the United States, regardless of income, race or ethnicity, geography or employment status deserve access to quality health care, and so we celebrate the increase in the number of people who have insurance this year. We also lift up the inherent dignity of work, and we must decry the lack of political action to extend the wealth of the economic recovery to our nation’s poorest. Millions of parents work full time and still cannot escape the crushing weight of poverty. We call upon congress to strengthen the social safety net as a strategy to address systemic injustice, however with only a few days before the end of the fiscal year, the Congressional majority is divided and unwilling to act.”

As Presbyterians, we are called to stand with the least of these in our world, and we must raise the alarm when nearly one third of our nation is dangerously close to poverty (below twice the poverty line). God has blessed us with a world of abundance and it is our duty to see that prosperity is shared. That means standing up against economic and racial injustice and systemic inequalities that trap generations in poverty and low-wage work. We need jobs that keep people out of poverty, not trap them in it.

Many thanks to the Coalition on Human Needs for 2014 Census analysis

[1] Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014. US Census Bureau. (P60-252)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Struggle to Make Federal Jobs into Good Jobs Continues

Reverend J. Herbert Nelson Joins Hundreds of Striking Low-Wage Federal Contract Workers to Welcome Pope Francis and Call for a Living Wage

Washington DC- On Tuesday at 10:30 am, the Reverend J. Herbert Nelson, Director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Office of PublicWitness, joined federal contract workers who walked off their jobs to protest poverty pay and to welcome Pope Francis and his commitment to economic justice and the working poor.

The U.S Senate contract employees joined hundreds of striking workers from the U.S. Capitol, Pentagon, Smithsonian Institution and other federal landmarks, where private companies receive lucrative contracts to run food service, provide janitorial services, and much more. Today, the federal government awards contracts to the lowest bidder, making the government the largest low-wage job creator in the country, funding over 2 million low wage jobs through contracts, loans, and grants to private businesses. Taxpayer dollars should create good jobs that pay workers livable wages, provide benefits, paid sick leave, and dignity in the workplace. 

Of the Prayer Action, Reverend Nelson said:

"It is imperative that we challenge our government to be an example of valuing all work by paying these government contract workers a wage that keeps them out of poverty. It is shameful that our elected officials lack the will to raise wages for these workers who clean their offices and serve their food. I am standing with these workers on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly, because the Church is called to affirm the worth and dignity of people in the workforce. People should be paid a livable wage for the work that they do."  

Reverend Nelson was joined in his solidarity with low-wage workers by several other religious leaders who lifted up the struggle of Senate workers who feed our elected representatives but must feed their children with food stamps. Reverend Michael Livingston, Executive Minister of Riverside Church said he was “honored and humbled to pray and stand with striking government workers who serve our senators and congress persons and who yet don’t make enough money to support themselves and their families.”  Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches echoed that sentiment in saying “this is a wonderful welcome for the Pope. Our prayer is that he will lift up the plight of workers and that he’ll become aware of the situation facing low wage federal workers. We wish to thank him for his teachings on economic justice.”

This strike is part of a new labor movement, a movement that is made up of low wage service sector workers, and a movement with new tactics. Just like the thousands of fast food worker who are calling for better pay, benefits, and working conditions, federal contract workers say they need “More than the Minimum” to survive.  Federal jobs should be good jobs, and the momentum around Pope Francis’s visit can help build the political will to make those good jobs a reality.