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Jubilee in jail

Special Report Writer

Repeating his call for a gesture of clemency as part of the church’s “Jubilee for Prisons,“ Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass this month at Rome’s Regina Coeli prison.

The pope’s visit to the prison followed a call to governments of the world for a general amnesty for prisoners, even if only a small reduction in prison terms. The pope urged governments to look anew at sentencing policies and to see how they can contribute to reduced crime and rehabilitation of offenders rather than simply serve society’s hope for retribution.

Although the pope’s message was intended for all nations, it has particular significance for the United States, where nearly 2 million men and women are behind bars - 25 percent of the world’s prison population. U.S. bishops are preparing their own document on prisons. Planned for release this fall, the document calls for a complete overhaul, not only of the nation’s judicial system and prisons, but also of the philosophy that underlies the nation’s approach to crime.

John Paul’s statement also offered implicit support to Catholic prison chaplains around the world, who proposed global amnesty for prisoners during an [September] 1999 meeting in Mexico City. Chaplains generally welcomed the statement, though a New Zealand priest noted for his work in criminal justice told NCR the pope’s statement fell short in its failure to challenge more aggressively some of the underlying assumptions driving approaches to crime. It was a “missed opportunity,“ said Fr. Jim Consedine, to actively engage Jubilee theology and practice.

The pope said prison initiatives for the Jubilee Year should not be “an automatic or purely cosmetic application of acts of clemency,“ but should foster “genuine renewal of both attitudes and institutions.“ He said he hoped signs of sensitivity toward prisoners, including his own statement, would encourage them “to regret the evil done“ and lead them to repentance.

Prisoners need opportunities for work and training, for psychological help and spiritual support, he said. Refusal on the part of governments to improve prison life should be seen as a signal that incarceration is “a mere act of vengeance on society,“ one sure to provoke “only hatred in the prisoners themselves.“

The pope has declared 2000 a Jubilee Year, a term derived from the Hebrew Bible that urges declaring a “jubilee for justice“ every 50 years, a period for review and redress of injustices and social inequities.

Coming from a man who was himself the victim of a 1981 assassination attempt and who made a public display of forgiveness to his attacker, Mehmet Ali Agca, the pontiff’s gesture toward prisoners was more than symbolic.

Bill Quigley, academic dean of Loyola School of Law in New Orleans, called the statement a “profoundly revolutionary document in the truest sense of the gospel. State legislators and Congressmen have not conceived of prisoners in these terms for a very long time,“ Quigley said. “The notion of rehabilitation of prisoners is not even given lip service in the United States,“ the lawyer said.

The pope’s address is “wonderfully refreshing,“ moving as it does from the notion of justice to justice tempered with mercy and finally to the responsibility to connect prisoners to families, Quigley said. “These are almost alien concepts here,“ said Quigley, who cited a British study estimating a worldwide prison population of 8 million with the United States accounting for 1.9 million, or nearly 25 percent of the total. An accurate count of people locked up worldwide is unavailable because many countries refuse to release such figures.

Stimulating scrutiny

While Quigley expects the document to be criticized and categorized much as was the U.S. Catholic bishops’ economic pastoral in 1983, he hopes it will energize Americans to scrutinize the efficiency and costs of the nation’s corrections system. More is being spent on prisons in some states than on education, he said.

Although the pope made no direct mention of the death penalty in his address, John Paul wrote: “Regulations contrary to the dignity and fundamental rights of the human person should be definitely abolished from national legislation.“ Quigley said he hoped that the pope would use the Jubilee occasion to call for a global moratorium on executions.

St. Joseph Sr. Rita Steinhagen, a specialist in U.S prisons, welcomed the pope’s remarks, particularly his recognition of prisons as places of vengeance and his emphasis on the importance of encouraging contacts between prisoners and their families. She noted that 70 percent of women in U.S. prisons are mothers of minor children. Mothers, in addition to losing their rights as citizens, lose all parenting rights during incarceration. Not only is this detrimental to children, it is also extremely expensive, she said, adding that the cost of jailing mothers is $25,000 per year plus an equal or greater cost of putting their youngsters in foster care.

Studies show that children whose mothers are in jail are five times more likely to go to prison themselves than those in the general population.

Steinhagen, a retired medical technologist who advocates on behalf of clients at the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, hoped the pope’s statement would move Christians to get involved with prisoners, whether by praying for, listening to, reading with or teaching them. She pointed to women in prison in Pekin, Ill., who, she said, earn 12 cents an hour picking up cigarette butts but have no meaningful occupation. Teaching these women to knit, comforting them or providing a grieving group would be a great benefit, she said.

The nun took issue, however, with two of the pope’s remarks. John Paul wrote: “At times prison life runs the risk of depersonalizing individuals.“ It “always“ depersonalizes inmates, Steinhagen said. The pope also wrote that “substantial progress has been made in conforming the penal system both to the dignity of the human person and the effective maintenance of public order.“ Steinhagen disagreed when looking at penal conditions in the United States, which have deteriorated from rehabilitation to retribution, she said.

Steinhagen said she hoped the nation’s Catholic bishops would not delay their promised pastoral on criminal justice. “Get it out there right now,“ she said, as part of the public debate in the coming election season. If it were hers to author, she would insist that the document call for an end to the death penalty and an investigation of human rights abuses in U.S. prisons, as have been documented recently by Amnesty International.

But the pastoral will probably not surface before the bishops’ annual meeting in mid-November, said Dan Misleh, policy adviser for nonviolence issues in the Office of Domestic Policy of the bishops’ conference - the office charged with preparing the letter. When it does appear, it is unlikely to be significantly changed from the 36-page draft that circulated to the press and others attending the bishops’ June meeting in Milwaukee.

Attention to victims

Misleh said, however, that bishops might incorporate the pope’s words and include more on the role of prison chaplains. “We’re trying not to write a statement for chaplains or for ex-offenders, but one that holds all people accountable and pays attention to victims and to the community affected by crime.“

Misleh found much in the pope’s address that “U.S. bishops have been saying since 1978.“ That was when the bishops last spoke as a body about criminal justice, although they have since issued statements on the culture of violence, violence in the media and the death penalty - all of which relate to criminal justice, he said.

Of all the issues with which the church deals, its weakest response is in the area of criminal justice, said Fr. Mike Bryant, chaplain for 20 years at the Washington, D.C., jail. “This is not a popular Catholic issue,“ he said, noting that “the average citizen does not understand the intensity of the problem.“

“Our prisons are social trash compactors: We believe that if you stick everybody together - the medically unhealthy and the mentally ill, the socially deviant and those with AIDS - that we’ll come out with something magically different. Well, we do,“ he noted, pointing to a recidivism rate that is 70 percent among juveniles, 63 percent among adults.

“If you were in a private business that failed 63 to 70 percent of the time, you’d have to go into another business,“ the priest said.

But Americans are sabotaging their own society by draining the coffers of state funds - funds “badly needed for education and health care“ - and instead appropriating them for more and more places to warehouse offenders. “We’ve created a monstrous operation, and it’s growing,“ Bryant said. The collusion of politicians and business to initiate “prisons for profit“ is little short of the reinvention of legalized slavery, he said.

For Catholics to advocate for penal reforms will require a powerful and prophetic effort on the part of the bishops in their role as teachers. “They’ve got to step up to the plate and use their moral authority here,“ said Bryant, a pastoral counselor who wrote his doctoral thesis on Catholic attitudes toward criminal offenders. The priest believes that Catholics will advocate for greater hand gun control, more drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs and greater financial outlays for education in prison if the bishops make a strong case for justice and mercy.

Fr. Jim Consedine’s disappointment with the document came less from what it said than what it failed to say. “There is no understanding of who is in prison (mainly the poor), why they are there (largely from offenses that flow from poverty or drug abuse) or of the prison-industrial complex, which makes enormous profits out of prisons and has a demonic life of its own,“ he said. “There is no recognition of the huge amount of crime committed by corporate bodies and governments, which is rarely punished by imprisonment. There is no mention of the victims of crime and how ignored they are in criminal justice processes.“

Message falls short

Consedine, who gave the keynote address late last year in Mexico City at a meeting of 150 Catholic prison chaplains from 55 nations (NCR, Dec. 31, 1999/Jan.7, 2000) has been a prison chaplain in New Zealand more than 25 years and is a priest of the Christchurch diocese. The priest said the pope’s message fell far short of recommendations made in Mexico City for the Jubilee. There chaplains had urged a global amnesty for women prisoners with dependent children and called for the release of inmates serving less than 12 months.

Although Consedine was grateful that John Paul called for the revision of prison structures, the protection of religious freedom and the care of the sick in prison, he found the pope’s statement assuming that prisons are normal and that everyone in them deserves to be there. “Neither assumption is correct,“ Consedine said. “Prisons are an affront to human dignity by their very nature. They are places of violence and denigration. Because they tend to crush people’s lives and destroy families, they are an affront to the dignity Christ won for us on Calvary and through the resurrection.“

Acknowledging that some people have to be detained to protect the common good and the public’s safety, the priest said that the vast majority of the world’s 8 million inmates are jailed for “offenses that could be dealt with in more productive, alternative, nonviolent ways.“ As examples, he pointed to victim/offender facilitation; to drug, alcohol or violence rehabilitation centers; to supervised probation; and community service. “Huge vested interests prevent their widespread implementation,“ the priest said. “Sadly, the papal statement also ignores these options.“

As good as the pope’s statement is or as well-written as the bishop’s pastoral might be, “theological fluff is not going to cut it,“ said Deacan Doots Dufour, director of Criminal Justice Ministry for the Austin, Texas, diocese. He argued for logic and reasoning.

People must understand who goes to prison, how they got there and what can be done about it before they’ll work for reform of the criminal justice system. “It’s a community problem,“ said Dufour, who has helped design mentoring programs so that adults can help and stay connected to youths who might otherwise end up in jail.

It ought to be impossible for politicians to ignore what’s in the pope’s address, said Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group in Washington that promotes alternatives to incarceration. “This is from a man who was shot, a man who has seen more pain and suffering than most people and who has pardoned his offender.“ But, he lamented, “they will do it. They will ignore it.“

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2000 [corrected 08/11/2000]