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.

Racism, Inequality and the Right to Vote

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Jason Adkins

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which is one of the most important and effective pieces of civil rights legislation enacted in this country’s history, more work needs to be done to ensure that racism and other inequities do not inhibit anyone from fully participating in community life.

For example, racial inequities in our nation’s criminal justice system impact voter participation.   Many states disenfranchise persons with a felony conviction who have completed their time of incarceration but have not completed their full sentence, including periods of supervised release.  In other words, even those who have left jail or prison and are living and working in the community and paying taxes cannot vote if they have not finished their period of probation or parole.

Disenfranchising felony offenders disproportionately impacts minorities.  In Minnesota, for example, approximately 7.4 percent of African-American and 5.9 percent of American- Indian Minnesotans are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, as opposed to only 1.1 percent of white Minnesotans.

Catholic social teaching encourages greater attention to disparities that impact voting participation.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that “participation in community life is not only one of the greatest aspirations of the citizen, called to exercise freely and responsibly his civic role with and for others, but is also one of the pillars of all democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the permanence of democratic life.” (no. 190.)

Our justice system has changed

Historically, a felony conviction resulted in what is called “civil death”—a concept dating back to ancient Roman jurisprudence.  By committing a crime, one had offended the peace of the community and, therefore, rightfully lost the privileges of participating in civil society.  Yet, when these rules barring the restoration of civil rights until the full sentence is completed were instituted, the criminal justice system looked a lot different than it does today.

In 1858, when Minnesota became a state, there were 75 felony crimes enumerated in statute.  Today, there are 368 (and the list continues to grow).  Only 30 people were in prison in 1858, and there was no probation system.  Today, there are approximately 16,000 people incarcerated in Minnesota, and 75 percent of felony convictions result in probation.  47,000 Minnesotans are on some form of supervised release and unable to vote.

Yet, there is no evidence that losing the right to vote deters crime.  It is merely punishment for punishment’s sake.  Fortunately, a rethinking of the punitive criminal justice policies of the past is occurring across the ideological spectrum.  In Minnesota, legislation that would restore the vote to those on supervised release has obtained broad bi-partisan support and hopefully will be signed into law soon.

Responsibility, rehabilitation, and restoration

Solidarity, a foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching, is defined as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (Solicitudo rei Socialis, no. 38).  In their document, “Restoration, Rehabilitation, and Responsibility” (2000), the U.S. Catholic bishops declared that in matters of criminal justice, “solidarity calls us to insist on responsibility and seek alternatives that do not simply punish, but rehabilitate, heal, and restore.”

The bishops encouraged lawmakers to redirect the vast amount of public resources away from building more prisons and toward better and more effective programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration.

In fact, the premise of supervised release programs is that an offender and society are better off by re-integrating people back into our communities.  If offenders continue to be reminded, however, by the collateral consequences of a conviction that they are not like everyone else, how can we, as a society, have expectations that they will act as responsibly as everyone else?

Restoring the vote to those who are out of prison and living and working in our communities under supervised release can promote successful reintegration into the community, as voting can be a powerful, concrete, and symbolic way to contribute to one’s community and to feel invested and empowered to play a positive role. In other words, it serves the common good. Fuller integration of people into their community and involvement in civic life logically results in stronger ties and feelings of empowerment, which can help to lessen feelings of disconnection and frustration that can contribute to future crime.

The Church should continue to be at the forefront of providing a policy framework that cuts through the false “either/or” rhetoric of criminal justice debates.  It should emphasize the need to integrate the policy goals of restoration, rehabilitation, and responsibility—not just retribution—and highlight the themes of justice and mercy for the disenfranchised and others on the margins of society.

Jason Adkins is executive director and general counsel of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.