Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bishop Wenski on Prison

I always look forward to anything from the pen of Orlando Bishop Thomas Wenski. Whatever he talks about - and he misses no part of the Church's witness - he's compelling. In his column this week, Bishop Wenski talks about Prison:
Earlier this year, a federal court found conditions in California prisons so overcrowded and inhumane that it ordered that state to reduce its prison population by one third. But these conditions are by no means unique to California. 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.

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 the ill-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 right 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 worse 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 elderly…and it cannot fail to include the prisoner as well. Here in the Diocese of Orlando, 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 (cf. 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 who history now knows as the “Good Thief” because he “stole” heaven – getting there before even before the sinless Virgin Mary.