NEW YORK — Bishop William Wack believes the new film Just Mercy “puts a human face” on the crisis facing America’s prison population and believes it could be a tool for awakening Catholic consciences to the reform that’s needed.
The film, he said, illustrates the need to “treat folks as human beings, to look at the whole body of evidence, [and] to not be afraid to re-open a case if there’s bias in the system.” Wack’s remarks came on February 3 during a segment of the Crux of the Matter radio show on Sirius XM 129 where he discussed the film, which was released in theatres on Christmas day last year.
Just Mercy is based on the memoir by Bryan Stevenson of the same title. Stevenson is a Harvard trained lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in the late 1980s to provide legal representation to those unable to afford it.
The film chronicles his representation of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a young woman and Stevenson’s efforts to win McMillian a new trial — all set against the backdrop of a racially divided community.
Wack, who leads the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, has previously described Stevenson as a hero, noting that he helped inspire the diocese to open the Joseph House, a ministry for ex-offenders seeking to help rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society.
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The Joseph House opened last spring with its first resident being a man who spent three decades in prison whom many involved in his care believe was wrongfully convicted.
Wack told Crux that working with prisoners is “a big part of our ministry,” noting that all of the diocese’s deacons are involved on some level, as it’s a big part of the formation process. He also highlighted the work of lay people whom he described as “very faithful” in “leading bible studies leading communion services, retreats, etc.”
“It’s a big part of who we are as a diocese and as a Church,” he said, which is only fitting, considering that the majority of the state’s massive prison population is in northern Florida where he resides.
When the diocese first sought to open the Joseph House, he said one of the neighbors expressed concern that a formerly incarcerated individual would be living in the community.
After a few months, he said, the neighbor admitted that “we were worried for nothing,” and that they were pleased to see a number of young people helping out at the house.
Wack said that the Joseph House has received the support of students at nearby Florida State University. He believes the film has been helpful in showing them the needs in their own community.
He describes the initiative as “a small way to help a few people get back into society, get a job, get a license, get a house, and ease them back into society,” noting that many formerly incarcerated individuals find reintegration to be “very overwhelming” and often just give up.
Just Mercy, he says, is one way in which people come to better understand the needs and realities of those in prison or newly released, who are often without any support system.
Wack isn’t alone in recommending the film — on February 12, the Catholic Mobilizing Network Against the Death Penalty will host a webinar on how the film can help Catholics fight the realities of racism.
“Not many people have been to prison or jail, even ministering…and death row is even more of a mystery,” he said. The film, he said, opens people’s eyes to that reality, and in the process, “helps them grow as a person.”
Wack also wants to push back against critics of the film — or of the Church’s opposition to capital punishment — and those who want to reduce it to the caricature that “everyone is innocent.”
“Absolutely not,” he insists, noting that the film is about mercy and justice.
“It helps to see people as they are as human beings,” he said, “both those that are members of the family of the convicted murderer and the family of the one who was murdered.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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