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A call for prisoner amnesty

NCR Staff

Release the world’s prisoners as part of the 2000 Jubilee year, or at least free those serving less than 12 months and send home women prisoners with dependent children.

The Catholic prison chaplains from around the world who called for this global prisoners’ amnesty during their recent Mexico City meeting added that amnesty for as many as possible should be only a starting point for church involvement in criminal justice issues.

Fr. Jim Consedine of New Zealand, an expert on restorative justice who has long been involved in prison ministry and in working for reform, gave the keynote address in Mexico City. During a visit to Washington for a National Cathedral conference on developing restorative and transformative justice, he summarized some of the main views of the Mexico City gathering:

  • The modern prison industrial complex is one of ‘the structures of sin’ Pope John Paul II wrote of in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988);
  • Prisons now form an essential part of global economic development strategies and continue to be built at an increasing pace despite declining crime rates in many industrialized countries;
  • There is a need to seriously examine the range of alternatives to prison and implement them;
  • Further, “we need to reassess our understanding of crime and ask why corporate crime and governmental crime advance virtually unhindered while ‘street crime’ has become a national and international preoccupation.”

In a wide-ranging NCR interview on justice issues, Consedine, a Christchurch diocese priest who has been in prison ministry for two decades, focused first on “corporate crime -- endemic the world over.”

“It hits us in so many ways -- from supermarket add-on costs to pollutants in the air we breathe,” said Consedine. “It’s the hidden costs of our banking and financial systems, the costs of our medicines. One tobacco company arguably kills and injures more people than all the street thugs put together.

“In Canada recently,” he said, “five companies in a world bulk vitamin cartel pleaded guilt to rigging Canadian markets for years, inflating prices by up to 30 percent. The $88 million fine was probably a fifth of the profits accrued in that time. No one went to prison, yet they stole from several million people.”

Starvation wages in developing countries, in which governments are complicit, “mean we’re all complicit because we buy these products at ridiculously low prices,” Consedine said. There is an ongoing “and huge criminal offense against one-sixth of the world’s families. Does anyone ever go to prison for this theft? Never. Am I truly my brother and sister’s keeper? Not really, it seems.”

Following his 1969 ordination, Consedine started off not with prisons but young Christian workers. He’d say Mass occasionally in prison; his pastor was a prison chaplain. When the chaplain left, the bishop asked Consedine to step in. He said no, unless the church also hired full-time lay Catholic chaplains at the same pay scale as Catholic elementary school teachers. (In New Zealand, the state pays the salary of Protestant chaplains only.)

The bishop and his consulters demurred -- for a while. The standoff ended when one lay chaplain was agreed to. Two more were subsequently added. Years into the work, Consedine feared he was burning out and asked for a parish part-time. He’s been pastor of St. Joseph the Worker, Lyttleton, since 1985 while working for penal reform.

And he teamed up with other Catholic chaplains -- “that’s been my savior. We talk, we do scripture reflection. We sustain each other.”

What he had discovered entering New Zealand prisons was that while Polynesian people make up 12 percent of the country’s 3.8 million population, they were 50 percent of the prison population. And while he was prepared to do some of the “holding hands” and traditional chaplaincy work, he started “seeking justice, which is what I think life is about,” he said.

“Basically, we scapegoat the poor. Someone steals from the drugstore, and you have four police vans and dogs there within minutes. Someone steals the equivalent of a million times over from a bank or in a business scam, and the police haven’t even got the resources, perhaps not even the expertise, to deal with it.

“So there’s a whole range of injustice,” he said.

And a whole range of back-up problems for the poor: alcoholism, drug abuse, intergenerational abusive and living patterns, he added.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, New Zealand took a new approach to juvenile crime -- restorative justice -- and closed down all but four of its juvenile detention centers.

A Maori judge, Macke Browne, was the instigator, Consedine said. Browne saw the juvenile system getting nowhere. The perpetrators went to boot camp, reform schools, detention centers and came out worse than ever.

He decided to try the traditional Maori system for justice: the circle. The offender and his family and his support system -- teachers, friends -- sit down with the victim and family and support system in the presence of a skilled facilitator.

“What we found,” said Consedine, a trained adult-setting facilitator, “is that openness drives the system, openness to vehemence, tolerance, compassion and, ultimately, forgiveness. This restorative conferencing is a lot more progressive and compassionate than you’d expect. For one thing, despite what you hear on radio call-in shows, 70 percent of the victims regard it as a better system than the court system. Why? Let me tell you about my auntie.

“Her place was robbed,” said Consedine. “From then on she was always fearful. Every creak at night, she couldn’t sleep. They took her peace away from her. In restorative conferencing she would have been able to ask, ‘Why did you pick my place? Are you going to come back? Can I sleep peacefully tonight?’ Unfortunately, they never caught the juveniles who entered her house.”

Restorative justice isn’t perfect, said Consedine. “I’d love to say there’s no recidivism. But it is way down -- between 15 and 30 percent.”

When does restorative justice not work? “When people want to torpedo it,” he said. “When people can’t cope with it -- it’s a lot tougher than the normal system where a kid can stand there with his head down and get sent away for a few months or years. When people can’t acknowledge what they’ve done. And sometimes victims don’t want to go through with it.”

The juveniles who do persevere through a restorative conference almost invariably grow a little, mature a little, said Consedine. But he believes the real place for such conferencing is with adult criminals. “Juveniles return to tremendous peer pressure. Adults have a chance to step away from that.”

In Mexico City, said Consedine, the 150 Catholic delegates from 55 countries wanted more from the church than simply focusing on sinful structures. They called for alternatives in the restorative area -- wellness centers for addicts, violent-men programs, victim/offender facilitation, “pioneering stuff.”

Would it work in the United States?

“The Mennonites are pushing for it,” said Consedine, who earlier had given a talk at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg,Va.

“I asked the students, ‘What does the Bible say about law and order issues?’ They inevitably answered, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’

“I told them that appears only three times in the entire Old Testament, and each time it was used to stop a lynch mob mentality as the softer option. But Jesus said, ‘You know an eye for an eye, but I say to you, love your enemy. Do good to those who hate you. Walk the extra mile.’ “

Consedine grinned. “I told them, ‘an eye for an eye’ appears three times; mercy 3,000 times. We’ve taken a line from scripture that’s quite graphic and misused it. The entire biblical tradition is of restorative justice.”

Fr. Jim Consedine is author of Restorative Justice: Healing the Effects of Crime (Ploughshares Publications, Box 33-135, Christchurch, New Zealand, -- US $15 including postage). E-mail: jimconse@xtra.co.nz

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2000