Respect Life Month: Working to End the Death Penalty

“Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” Pope Francis, March 20, 2015

This memorial dedicated to Sister Paula Merrill, a member of the Sisters of Nazareth, and Sister Margaret Held, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, was blessed and dedicated May 20 in Durant, Miss. The women, who were murdered in their home last fall, were nurse practitioners at a local health clinic. (CNS photo/Ruthie Robison, Mississippi Catholic)

Just over a year ago, two Catholic nuns were brutally murdered in Durant, Mississippi. Sister Margaret M. Held, a School Sister of St. Francis, and Sister Paula J. Merrill, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, were beloved and committed nurse practitioners serving some of the poorest children and families in the country.  The community health clinic where they worked is in the 7th poorest county in the country, in the hungriest and poorest state in our nation.

The sisters’ ministry embodied what the Church calls “preferential option for the poor.”  The senseless loss of these sisters has caused tremendous pain for their families, their local clients, and their religious communities.

If you have followed this story at any length, likely you have been captivated by the courageous, Christ-like response the sisters’ religious Congregations shared following the murder, in part: “We want to reiterate our beliefs as women of faith, that we value life. For years now the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis have worked to abolish the death penalty, even as we seek justice and truth.”

Close family members and fellow sisters alike say that coming forward with a statement to oppose the death penalty was clear and certain for them. Given the strong faith-held convictions and the life-long healing ministries of Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret, everyone immediately understood the merciful action the sisters themselves would have wanted to respond to such a tragedy.

The modern Catholic Church is against the death penalty; the last three popes have made the Church’s opposition very clear. And while more Catholics are opposed to the death penalty than ever, statistics reveal that upwards of 43% of U.S. Catholics still support capital punishment.  Given this sobering reality, the response made by the families and sisters is even more courageous an example for us and witness for our times.

The truth is the death penalty is coming to an end and the time is now to make a difference.

As we observe Respect Life Month this October, we are invited to reflect on the depth of our convictions related to dignity of all life and our pro-life stance.  At the time of this writing, a disturbing six executions are scheduled throughout October. These executions demand action.  Catholic Mobilizing Network’s Mercy in Action Project  is an easy way to direct your faithful advocacy to end the death penalty and take a stand for life.

In their living, Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret sought to heal people on the margins of society.  In their dying these sisters left their legacy of life – lived, shared and sacrificed; a story we recognize by our faith in Jesus Christ.

 Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy is Managing Director of Catholic Mobilizing Network. She is co-author of Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures.


Going Deeper

Respect Life Month is the perfect time to recommit yourself to our faith’s pro-life call.  To facilitate this, Catholic Mobilizing Network has created a Respect Life Month Toolkit to help your parish community renew its dedication to all life. This toolkit is full of resources to help you educate, advocate, and pray to end the death penalty, including a pro-life prayer service, social media ideas and bulletin articles. The toolkit also contains CMN’s new initiative, the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty, a great way to begin your advocacy for all life, consider signing the pledge if you haven’t already.

Voices Unite to Reform the Justice System

Persistent injustice, mind-boggling greed, and downright confusing twists in the legal system can wear down the strongest people. It’s almost easier to give up and give in than try to change things. But once in a while, like-minded individuals lean on one another, share their frustrations and dreams, and commit to an action plan that lifts everyone. And the plan develops and changes as the needs and strengths of the people change.

Essentially, that’s how DART was established in Florida more than 30 years ago and then became an eight-state network. Two groups of people associated with religious congregations found common ground in their shared beliefs and commitment to justice. And the Archdiocese of Miami had its shoulder to the wheel with them from the beginning. DART’s formal name is Direct Action and Research Training Center, but like your Aunt Sis and Uncle Buddy, everyone knows them by the shorter name.

The Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE), an affiliate of DART, builds justice ministry in Polk County, FL. Members tour a drug rehabilitation clinic that PEACE helped open.

The network helps congregations form larger organizations that reflect their common interests and values as they negotiate solutions to the root causes of problems in their community. Each of the 22 DART organizations is an independent entity, but all the groups and the more than 400 diverse congregations they comprise are united by a belief in the biblical concept of justice. They also use a “bottom-up” model to identify issues, develop leaders, and figure out realistic solutions.

The DART model is based on the Scripture account of Nehemiah, who brought people and their leaders together to devise solutions to a system that impoverished the citizenry. Nehemiah insisted that the nobles, magistrates, and people be held accountable for the promises they made.

Members of St. Ann Catholic Church were part of the 2,000 Attendees at a recent Nehemiah Assembly. At this assembly local officials from the juvenile justice system learn about the problem of youth arrests and make commitments to address them.

Recently, the DART group in Florida turned its considerable attention to a disturbing trend to criminalize young children. I was shocked when Holly Holcombe, Assistant Director, told me 12,000 children were arrested in 2014 for generally minor offenses. During a tantrum, for example, a five-year-old Special Education student knocked a tissue out of a teacher’s hand. He was charged with assault.

There is, however, an alternative: civil citations. The civil citation process, as provided under state statute, would allow non-arrest restitution and diversion for non-serious offenses. “It’s not a slap on the wrist,” Holly said.

From 2010 to 2014, 5,000 children ages 5-10 years old were arrested for offenses for which they could have received a civil citation. At first, the provision could only be used once for each youth and only 38% of those eligible received citations. Through the efforts of ten Florida-based DART organizations, 52% of eligible children were diverted to civil citations without arrest in 2016, and legislation was enacted to allow children to receive up to three citations. Nonetheless, civil citations are at the discretion of local law enforcement, which results in uneven application of the provision. Holly points out that 8,000 youth who were arrested last year were eligible for the citation, but it was not applied to their cases.

Training participants enjoy lunch between workshop sessions. Here participants learn to build their justice ministry through witnessing, evaluating, and engagement.

Clearly, there is more work to be done, and DART’s work is advancing steadily. Groups like these help people surface their deeply held concerns, engage with their feet on the ground, act on the Biblical mandate to do justice, and hold public officials accountable to work for the people they serve. This is what we are called to do.

As Pope Francis said at the 2nd World Meeting of Popular Movements, “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you.”

Beth Griffin is a free-lance journalist with an abiding interest in social justice.

DART in Florida receives funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have long been vocal about restorative justice.  Read the bishops’ statement on Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice and find out what’s happening now.

Serving the Local Community: Catholic Colleges and Universities Partner with CCHD

Inspired by their mission, Catholic colleges and universities serve their local communities in many ways, including building partnerships to work for the common good. Since 2010, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) member institutions have partnered with community organizations funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. Together they collaborate on initiatives that help people in their local communities who are living in poverty participate in decisions that affect their lives, families and communities. These organizations are dedicated to empowering people to create change in their local community through solidarity and education. Saint Joseph’s University, the University of Dallas, and Marquette University are just a few of the institutions addressing local issues of poverty through these partnerships, providing a concrete way for students to live out the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

At Saint Joseph’s University, students have the opportunity to work with Urban Tree Connection, a non-profit organization funded by CCHD that works with people living in Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods to develop community-based greening and gardening projects. Urban Tree Connection (UTC) empowers members of the local community by training people in farming and other agricultural skills and making fresh produce more widely available. Their projects are created on vacant land to create safe and functional spaces that promote positive human interactions. Saint Joseph’s University’s Sustainability Committee and Institute for Environmental Stewardship work with UTC to provide access to the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at UTC to faculty, staff, administrators, and students at the university. Subscribers to the CSA receive vegetables from UTC’s urban farms, supporting their efforts to transform abandoned lots into community gardens.

In addition to promoting the CSA program, students at SJU are also encouraged to work with UTC in their community gardens through the Philadelphia Service Immersion Program and the Magis Program. The Philadelphia Service Immersion Program is an optional early move-in experience for first-year students. This four-day program introduces incoming freshmen to the Jesuit values of social justice, service to those on the margin, moral discernment, and intellectual inquiry through community service learning. This past fall, six students volunteered with UTC through the program. Each evening, the students reflected on what they learned and experienced that day in a small group discussion led by incoming sophomores. Another opportunity available to connect students to UTC is the Magis Program, a semester-long service and social justice program for first-year students. Students meet weekly in small groups for community service, social justice education, and reflection. UTC is one of the sites where students can serve for the semester as part of the Magis Program.

Like St. Joseph’s, other Catholic campuses are finding that partnerships with CCHD-funded groups provide mutual benefits for all the partners. For example, the University of Dallas partnered with the local diocesan CCHD staff to educate students about the reality of poverty in the United States. Working with students and staff, together they created the Journey to Justice Retreat (J2J) to teach students about the issue of poverty in the local area and throughout the country. Using resources from CCHD such as Poverty USA, participants learned about the effects of poverty on people all over the country.

The J2J Retreat featured a focus on the CCHD-funded group Texas Tenant Union (TTU). TTU is a community organizing group dedicated to securing more and higher quality low-income housing by advocating for legislation, providing free legal counsel for low-income tenants, and offering rights education and counseling for tenants. Former diocesan CCHD intern Colleen McInerney, an alumna of the University of Dallas, says the retreat showed students the importance of CCHD in that TTU “wouldn’t have been able to do nearly as much without the CCHD resources” available to it, which inspired many students to get involved with anti-poverty organizations. The retreat was well-received and students hope that the university will be able to host the retreat again in the future.

In addition to hosting service opportunities and working together on educational programming, Catholic colleges and universities can partner with CCHD-funded organizations to learn more about advocacy within the nation’s political system. Marquette University offers students a way to become involved in advocacy through courses that incorporate service learning and through an internship. Project Return assists men and women who have experienced incarceration in making a positive reentry to the community. Each academic year, students work at Project Return for ten hours a week , helping clients find jobs and housing, work through personal issues, and celebrate accomplishments. They learn about the process of reentry by visiting a prison, meeting parole officers, and witnessing a reentry court run by a federal judge. In addition to learning more about the issue, students most recently advocated with community leaders, canvassed neighborhoods on issues surrounding criminal justice reform, and organized a community mental health day.

The project also enables Marquette student interns to work with a mentor on a variety of tasks and to incorporate their own academic interests into the internship. One student intern during the past year worked to launch a mental health initiative to accommodate clients in need of psychological services. Ed de St. Aubin, Ph.D., the director of the internship program, commented, “The social justice mission of our Jesuit university is completely aligned with the mission of Project Return.” De St. Aubin noticed how the experience opened students up to more growth than a classroom could have afforded, exposing them to numerous human factors connected to criminal justice reform, such as race relations, ethnic disparities, and faith development. Recently, de St. Aubin, as well as interns Max Hughes-Zahner and Alex Krouth, were guests on RiverWest Radio Milwaukee’s show, Expo: Ex-Prisoners Organizing. Hughes-Zahner, a junior at Marquette, noted on the show that this internship “was very important for me to experience it from that side because previous to that I had really only experienced classroom learning about incarceration and prison.”

Saint Joseph’s University, the University of Dallas, and Marquette University are working with local organizations to create community-based solutions to issues of poverty and inequality. Their partnerships with CCHD-funded groups enable them to live the values of Catholic Social Teaching and have a visible effect on the surrounding neighborhoods. Students are able to work alongside those living the issues they are working to resolve, giving them an experience of solidarity. Through a partnership with an organization funded by CCHD, Catholic universities make a difference in their communities and give students experience in what it means to have a faith that does justice.

Camilla MacKenzie is an undergraduate student at The Catholic University of America and former Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at the ACCU Peace and Justice blog.

From Prison to Rome: The Impact of the Year of Mercy on Reentry

Dominic and his children get their boarding passes for Rome

Dominic and his children get their boarding passes for Rome

Rome was an amazing trip – it was more than I ever imagined, and to have my wife and children join me was the icing on the cake! I’ve dreamed of being able to take my family out of the country and experience some amazing places like Rome, but what was even more amazing was the reason why we were invited to Rome. The Jubilee Year of Mercy Mass, dedicated to those who are incarcerated and prison and jail ministers, reinforced and gave even more assurance that the work we do in re-entry with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is touched and blessed by God!

In his homily, Pope Francis shared, “We know that in God’s eyes no one can consider himself just (Rom 2:1-11). But no one can live without the certainty of finding forgiveness! The repentant thief, crucified at Jesus’ side, accompanied him into paradise (Lk 23:43). So may none of you allow yourselves to be held captive by the past! True enough, even if we wanted to, we can never rewrite the past. But the history that starts today, and looks to the future, has yet to be written, by the grace of God and your personal responsibility. By learning from past mistakes, you can open a new chapter of your lives. Let us never yield to the temptation of thinking that we cannot be forgiven. Whatever our hearts may accuse us of, small or great, ‘God is greater than our hearts’ (1 Jn 3:20). We need but entrust ourselves to his mercy.”

Tiffany Hunter, Jeffery Whalen, and Dominic Duren - three returning citizens who went to Rome for the pilgrimage

Tiffany Hunter, Jeffery Whalen, and Dominic Duren – three returning citizens who went to Rome for the pilgrimage

My trip to Rome had me thinking of my faith and ways to not only strengthen my relationship with God, but my wife’s and children’s as well.  We take for granted the martyrs that sacrificed their lives for merely the right to worship. Pope Francis’ homily is affirmation that God is touching the work we do and the path we are taking is the right one.

I’m so blessed to be part of this movement that not only saved my life but turned me into a leader and gave me an opportunity to help others who struggle to get their lives back on track after incarceration.

The Cincinnati delegation prepares to depart to Rome

The Cincinnati delegation prepares to depart to Rome

To be able to attend a Mass led by the Pope is a once in lifetime experience. But to attend a Mass by the Pope that focuses on those who are formerly incarcerated and their was mind blowing! I’m grateful for the opportunity to broaden my horizons by the experience I had in Rome. I learned so much and have such a greater appreciation for the sacrifices people made for their faith. I want to thank the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Brother Mike Murphy, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and each and every person that attended the pilgrimage to Rome for the amazing experience that I and my family had.

The work we do is hard and frustrating at times but Pope Francis has inspired me to do more, as much as humanly possible: educate, connect, engage, build meaningful relationships, organize, and advance issues that build safe, loving, and thriving communities! To have Pope Francis’ support and encouragement for the fair treatment of those who are formerly incarcerated is evidence that our suffering is not going unheard or unseen. I have not felt this hopeful in a very long time!!!!

Thank you, Pope Francis, for providing hope to a population of people who have been hopeless for far too long!

Dominic Duren was among those from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati invited to the Vatican for a Jubilee Year of Mercy Mass for people who are incarcerated and those who minister in prisons and jails. He is the Re-entry Coordinator for The Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Cincinnati Ohio.


Going Deeper!

Lear more about St. Vincent de Paul’s two major reentry projects in Cincinnati:

The Help Program, founded by Br. Mike Murphy and provides the leadership development and community support for the returning citizens.

BLOC Print is a social enterprise that provides training and jobs.

CCHD: A Voice of Hope for Those on the Margins

The USCCB collection to support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development will be taken up in parishes nationwide on the weekend of November 19-20. Please give generously.working-on-the-margins

 

Pope Francis reminds us, “we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it” (2014 Message for Lent, December 26, 2013).

For the past several years I have served as chair of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) subcommittee, where I have seen how CCHD answers this call by giving voice to those on the margins of society experiencing the stark realities of poverty. I want to share with you the work of a few CCHD-supported groups across the country. These are just some of the many programs that speak to the dignity of each person, opening doors and providing hope for a more just and peaceful society.

The California Catholic Conference works with dioceses throughout California to advocate for criminal justice reform and provide spiritual outreach for communities. With a grant from CCHD, the California Catholic Conference expanded its Nightwalk programs in neighborhoods all over California. During Nightwalk—an event led by community leaders, elected officials, and clergy—community members walk the streets of violence-prone neighborhoods together in an effort to promote peace and reconciliation. These walks unify communities and give them a chance to find pathways out of violence together. Just as it is important to unify communities, it is also important to heal the wounds of individuals affected by crime and violence. The California Catholic Conference also sponsors healing circles that bring both victims of crime and families of the incarcerated together for honest dialogue and healing. By training more leaders to facilitate these meetings, the restorative power of God’s compassion and mercy is more widely spread. As Bishop Richard Garcia of the Diocese of Monterey said, “It’s really a question of reaching out to everyone with that merciful love of our God.”

 Through a CCHD national strategic grant, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been working across the country to promote the safe, effective entry of citizens returning from incarceration into communities and into the workforce. Through St. Vincent de Paul’s partnership with local Catholic institutions and the business community, as well as through programs like job training, returning citizens are able to find jobs, stability, and a future. In an effort to break the cycle of crime and prison reentry, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul also empowers returning citizens to work for the systemic changes needed to promote criminal justice reform. With these new skills, they have been able to advocate for policies that will support fair hiring practices. Through these programs and partnerships, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is shifting systems to ensure the success of returning citizens.

Pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's prison ministries are seen in Rome Nov. 3. Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass for those who work in prison ministry Nov. 6 in St. Peter's Basilica. (CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves)

Pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s prison ministries are seen in Rome Nov. 3. Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass for those who work in prison ministry Nov. 6 in St. Peter’s Basilica. (CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves)

Often, when juveniles are arrested their record follows them their whole lives, decreasing their chances of finding gainful employment and increasing their chances of reoffending. Together with the Catholic bishops, groups like the Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART) in Miami are working to reduce the number of juvenile arrests, giving children a real chance at success. Thanks to a strategic national grant from CCHD, DART works with school and law enforcement officials to decrease the number of school-based arrests and promote alternative, constructive interventions that give children a second chance at their future. Because of their work, school systems are now able to implement restorative justice practices affecting over 65,000 students and resulting in a decrease in suspensions and arrests.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) works to be a voice of hope for those on the margins of society experiencing the realities of living in poverty. CCHD supports programs to heal the wounds of crime and violence, advocate for more just policies, protect God’s creation, and develop strong communities.

The Mercy of Jesus is abiding and always urgent. CCHD sustains the Holy Father’s initiative to bring the joy of the gospel to our brothers and sisters living on the margins of American life. Although we will soon conclude the Year of Mercy, a time of extraordinary grace, we know that our work has just begun.

Bishop Soto

Jaime Soto is the bishop of Sacramento and the chairman of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.


CCHD: Dando Voz a Los Que Viven en la Periferia de la Sociedad

El papa Francisco nos recuerda que “los cristianos estamos llamados a mirar las miserias de los hermanos, a tocarlas, a hacernos cargo de ellas y a realizar obras concretas a fin de aliviarlas” (Mensaje para la Cuaresma 2014, 26 de diciembre de 2013).

Durante los últimos años me he desempeñado como presidente del subcomité de la Campaña Católica para el Desarrollo Humano (CCHD), donde he visto cómo la CCHD responde a este llamado dando voz a los que viven en la periferia de la sociedad experimentando las crudas realidades de la pobreza. Quiero compartir con ustedes el trabajo de algunos grupos apoyados por la CCHD en todo el país. Son sólo algunos de los muchos programas que ponen de manifiesto la dignidad de cada persona, abriendo puertas y brindando esperanza para una sociedad más justa y pacífica.

La Conferencia Católica de California trabaja con diócesis de toda California para abogar por la reforma de la justicia penal y brindar acercamiento espiritual a las comunidades. Con una subvención de la CCHD, la Conferencia Católica de California expandió sus programas Nightwalk en vecindarios de toda California. Durante Nightwalk, un evento dirigido por líderes, funcionarios electos y clérigos de una comunidad, miembros de la comunidad caminan juntos por las calles de vecindarios propensos a la violencia para promover la paz y la reconciliación. Estas caminatas unifican a las comunidades y les dan la oportunidad de encontrar juntas salidas a la violencia. Así como es importante unificar las comunidades, también es importante curar las heridas de las personas afectadas por el delito y la violencia. La Conferencia Católica de California también patrocina círculos de curación que reúnen a víctimas del delito y familias de los encarcelados para sostener un proceso honesto de diálogo y curación. Al capacitar a más líderes para facilitar estas reuniones, el poder restaurador de la compasión y misericordia de Dios se difunde más ampliamente. Como dijo el obispo Richard García, de la diócesis de Monterey, “es realmente una cuestión de acercarse a todos con ese amor misericordioso de nuestro Dios”.

Mediante una subvención estratégica nacional de la CCHD, la Sociedad de San Vicente de Paúl ha estado trabajando en todo el país para promover la entrada segura y efectiva de los ciudadanos que regresan del encarcelamiento a las comunidades y a la fuerza de trabajo. Mediante la asociación de San Vicente de Paúl con instituciones católicas locales y la comunidad empresarial, así como mediante programas como capacitación laboral, los ciudadanos que regresan pueden encontrar trabajo, estabilidad y un futuro. En un esfuerzo por romper el ciclo de delito y reingreso a prisión, la Sociedad de San Vicente de Paúl también empodera a los ciudadanos que regresan para que trabajen por los cambios sistémicos necesarios para promover la reforma de la justicia penal. Con estas nuevas habilidades, han podido abogar por políticas que apoyen prácticas equitativas de contratación. A través de estos programas y asociaciones, la Sociedad de San Vicente de Paúl está cambiando sistemas para asegurar el éxito de los ciudadanos que regresan.

A menudo, cuando los menores son arrestados sus antecedentes penales los siguen toda su vida, disminuyendo sus posibilidades de encontrar empleo decente y aumentando sus posibilidades de reincidir. Junto con los obispos católicos, grupos como el Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART) de Miami están trabajando para reducir el número de detenciones de menores, dando a los niños una oportunidad real de éxito. Gracias a una subvención estratégica nacional de la CCHD, DART trabaja con funcionarios escolares y de aplicación de la ley para disminuir el número de arrestos dentro de las escuelas y promover intervenciones alternativas y constructivas que den a los niños una segunda oportunidad en su futuro. Debido a su trabajo, los sistemas escolares pueden ahora implementar prácticas de justicia restaurativa que benefician a más de 65,000 estudiantes y que disminuyen suspensiones y arrestos. La Campaña Católica para el Desarrollo Humano (CCHD) trabaja para ser una voz de esperanza para los que viven en la periferia de la sociedad experimentando las realidades de vivir en la pobreza. La CCHD apoya programas para curar las heridas del delito y la violencia, abogar por políticas más justas, proteger la creación de Dios y desarrollar comunidades fuertes.

La Misericordia de Jesús es permanente y siempre urgente. La CCHD apoya la iniciativa del Santo Padre de llevar la alegría del Evangelio a nuestros hermanos y hermanas que viven en la periferia de la vida estadounidense. Aunque pronto concluiremos el Año de la Misericordia, un tiempo de gracia extraordinaria, sabemos que nuestro trabajo recién ha comenzado.

Bishop Soto

Jaime Soto es el Obispo de Sacramento y el presidente del subcomité de la Campaña Católica para el Desarrollo Humano (CCHD).

The Cruel Cost of Solitary Confinement

On June 6, 2015 a young man named Kalief Browder, committed suicide in his home in The Bronx, a borough of New York City.

The seeds for this tragedy had been planted six years before when, at the young age of 16, Kalief was accused of stealing a backpack. Although he maintained his innocence and was never convicted, Kalief endured three years in Rikers Island Correctional Facility.

During this time, Kalief spent a total of two years of his imprisonment in solitary confinement and suffered physical abuse at the hands of both guards and other inmates. After he was released without ever being convicted of a crime, Kalief’s mental health deteriorated. Reflecting over his time in Rikers, Kalief said this, “…I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.”

Kalief’s case represents some of the most tragic shortcomings of our justice system; in particular, it underlines the dangers of our country’s overuse of solitary confinement.

Across our nation, over 80,000 men and women are currently experiencing conditions similar to the solitary confinement Kalief endured for two years. Individuals are confined in cells for 22-24 hours a day, are isolated from contact with other human beings, do not receive opportunities to participate in rehabilitative and educational programing, have limited access to medical and mental health treatment, and suffer sensory deprivation and permanent bright lighting.

Catholic Mobilizing Network partnered with NRCAT this past November to bring a replica solitary cell to NCYC 2015. After experiencing and learning about the cell, students wrote letters of support to people currently in solitary.

Catholic Mobilizing Network partnered with NRCAT this past November to bring a replica solitary cell to NCYC 2015. After experiencing and learning about the cell, students wrote letters of support to people currently in solitary.

Solitary is known to increase the risk of suicide, exacerbate mental illness and cause a range of mental and physiological symptoms. As Kalief wrote in a research paper for school after his release, Instead of solitary confinement rehabilitating inmates there is evidence of it actually causing severe mental problems for inmates and in the long run leaving the mental disorders for their families to deal with.”

Proponents of solitary claim it is needed to reduce violence in prisons, but the majority of individuals in solitary are there for non-violent rule infractions. According to longtime prison chaplain and activist, Sr. Marion Defeis, CSJ, “Holding people in isolation until they are mentally broken is not acceptable. And it’s actually no safer for guards and other inmates.”  A number of correctional facilities have experimented with limiting solitary and allowing greater access to human contact and rehabilitative programs, frequently as a response to litigation from civil rights groups, and these changes have improved rather than worsened prison safety.

In his recent World Day of Peace Message, Pope Francis reminded us that “love for others” is “the yardstick by which God will judge our actions.”  As the Pope spoke about love for the prisoner; his words could have been directly addressing the story of Kalief Browder;  “in many cases practical measures are urgently needed to improve [prisoners’] living conditions, with particular concern for those detained while awaiting trial.”

As we follow the Holy Father’s call to pursue “justice and peace” in 2016, let us not forget our brothers and sisters in solitary confinement and the conditions they suffer in our name. Let us work to ensure that the inviolable dignity, value, and worth of all human beings are protected within our justice system.

 

Lydia CocomLydia Cocom is Programs Director at the Catholic Mobilizing Network.


To learn more about solitary confinement and the work of Catholic Mobilizing Network in raising up the Catholic voice on this issue, please visit https://catholic-mobilizing.squarespace.com/#intro and http://www.catholicsmobilizing.org.

America’s Prison System is a World of Pain and Despair

 The following article was originally published by the Sun Sentinel on August 19, 2015.

Next month, when Pope Francis visits the United States, one stop on his itinerary will be a prison outside of Philadelphia. He has visited prisons in Italy and other countriesheadshot of Archbishop Thoma Wenski to remind us of the dignity of even those convicted of crime. Pope Francis has said, “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.”

While conditions in U.S. prisons might be a bit more humane than those in the notorious Palmasola prison he visited in Bolivia last month, our criminal justice system is nevertheless broken, and it needlessly continues to break up families and communities throughout our nation.

As a nation we incarcerate more of our population than any other Western country, more than even the Soviet Union did. Today, the United States has more than 2.2 million people in prison on any given day — and in the course of a year some 13.5 million passed through our correctional institutions.

In Florida, our state prisons, which house some 100,000 people, have been tainted by scandals in recent years — with various allegations of prisoner abuse and even murder by guards still being investigated.

How did this come about? There are lots of reasons, of course. The crisis in our families — the breakup and dissolution of American families, especially among the poor — certainly left many young people rudderless. Many did not only lose their way; they never learned the way.

Access to better legal counsel and resources often allow the rich and better-educated offenders to defer or avoid prison. The incarcerated tend to be those less educated, the mentally ill, drug addicts or the poor. And because of ill-considered tougher sentencing laws and tougher parole laws that seek more to punish than to rehabilitate, our prison populations continue to grow. “Three strikes” laws often end up sentencing minor criminals to a lifetime of jail for what are relatively petty third offenses.

Justice is supposedly blind — but given the inequities of the criminal justice system today, one could rightly say that justice is crippled.

Our Judeo-Christian tradition has always called for the humane treatment of prisoners and has emphasized that imprisonment should lead to the rehabilitation of the prisoner so that he can return to society and resume his place as a productive citizen. The reality of prisons today is far from this ideal.

While society needs to be protected from the worst among us, there is little effort to rehabilitate the nonviolent and the misguided. And while our Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, what we see happening in our prisons is cruel and inhuman. The spread of infectious diseases in prisons, including AIDS, and the sexual violence that occurs within prison walls point out just how inhuman conditions are in our nation’s prison system today.

All this reflects the sad reality of the incarcerated today, whether they are in a small county jail or a large federal prison. Their world is one of pain and despair. Because nobody wants to live next door to a correctional institution, they are usually built in isolated rural areas — and so prisoners end up “warehoused” far from their families — and so, “out of sight, out of mind,” the rest of society allows itself to simply ignore them.

Violence begets violence: Man’s inhumanity to man consists not only of crime itself but also how we as a society treat the wrongdoer. The inmate is our brother or sister in Christ, a child of God who, in spite of whatever crime he or she might have committed, does not forfeit his or her dignity as a child of God.

As a church we must proclaim and promote the respect of each person’s dignity — this must include the unborn, the handicapped, the migrant, the elderly … and it cannot fail to include the prisoner as well.

Here in the Archdiocese of Miami, many of our priests, deacons and faithful minister to the incarcerated. Their ministry is truly a work of mercy. They take to heart Jesus’ words in his parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25): “I was in prison and you visited me.”

After all, Jesus himself was imprisoned and suffered crucifixion, the means of capital punishment of his time. And from the cross, he beatified a common criminal whom history now knows as the “Good Thief” because he “stole” heaven — getting there even before the sinless Virgin Mary.

Pope Francis will remind us in his visit to a U.S. prison this September, “God is in everyone’s life.”

Most Reverend Thomas G. Wenski is Archbishop of Miami and is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.