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‘Our words of love must be incarnate’

NCR Staff

When the chaplain of Rome’s largest prison contrasts the criminal justice system here with the system in the United States, he is struck by one glaring disparity. He says that America locks up almost one of every 100 people, while Italy has a ratio closer to 1 in 1,000.

“In America, the prisons are the containers for the poor,” said Fr. Sandro Spriano. “Here, the mania for incarceration is not so strong.”

To be precise, the ratio in the United States is closer to 1 in 145 with a prison population of 1.86 million against a national population of 270 million. (According to Justice Department statistics, the total behind bars is projected to hit 2 million in 2001.) Still, Spriano is right that the United States locks up a dramatically higher proportion of its own people than other Western nations with similar levels of economic and social development.

On other basic matters, however - the disproportionate numbers of poor people and immigrants in prisons, the emphasis on punishment rather than reintegration into society, and lack of imagination about alternatives to jail - Italy and the United States, along with most nations of the world, are in the same boat. He hopes that boat will be rocked, even if mildly, by John Paul II’s June 30 document on prison reform.

Spriano lives and works in Rome’s Rebbibia prison, one of the largest in Europe and the site of dramatic inmate uprisings in recent weeks. He spoke to NCR in early July.

According to figures from the independent Sentencing Project, the U.S. rate is second in the world, narrowly behind Russia’s. France, by way of comparison, jails .9 people per 1000; the Netherlands .65. Both are slightly lower than Italy’s 1 in 1,000, which represents its largest prison population since World War II - 55,000 inmates for a national population of 57 million.

Those inmates face conditions that by American standards seem remarkably brutal. Italian prisons provide only beds and food, leaving inmates responsible for their own clothing. Many end up in rags. Prisoners are confined to their cells 20 hours a day and are afforded no work or educational opportunities. During their four hours out of the cells, they are forbidden to take part in group activities.

Moreover, Italian prisons are sorely overcrowded. The country’s 55,000 inmates are housed in facilities built for 42,000, with the result that poor conditions have become far worse.

“The hygienic situation is deplorable. Cells built for three now contain six or seven, so some have dirt for their mattress,” Spriano said. He has seen prisoners mutilate themselves, even attempt suicide, in efforts to escape these realities.

The heart of John Paul’s June 30 document was a request for governments to consider an act of clemency for prisoners, even a small one, in keeping with the theme of the Jubilee Year. The appeal had an immediate resonance here, where the government was already considering waiving some time for inmates sentenced to less than three years, in part to cope with overcrowding. Proposals to this effect remain stalled in the national legislature.

In a spate of recent uprisings in Italian jails, inmate anger boiled over in the form of widespread unrest. In some prisons, inmates set their sheets and beds on fire and tossed them out the windows. Some took hostages and beat guards. At Rebbibia, however, the protests were largely nonviolent. More than 300 inmates went on hunger strikes the week of June 26, and hundreds of others banged objects against their bars and walls to demonstrate solidarity.

Spriano, who said he has been radicalized by the experience of living in prison, supported the uprising.

“All men and women have human rights. They need to express them, and they have a right to do so. It forced the politicians to discuss this issue, because before they didn’t do it. Our criminal justice system is just not at all interested in these people.”

Spriano has toured prisons in Brazil and Chile and uncovered lessons for the West about dealing with nonviolent offenders. He pointed to Brazil, where several prisons are administered and staffed by groups of Catholic volunteers designated by a local magistrate. They offer prisoners opportunities to work, to attend classes and, where possible, to make restitution for their offenses. “It’s a real re-education,” Spriano said. “It is not meaningless time behind bars.”

Spriano said he hopes the pope’s document will prompt the church to take a strong stand on reform.

“The church’s words of love and pardon and reconciliation are beautiful, but they must become incarnate and specific in order to have an effect,” he said. “Prisoners’ rights should be respected as a matter of justice and not out of charity. Too many Christians think of prisons not in terms of justice but only in terms of law.”

After 10 years, Spriano said he remains struck by how inhumane prison life seems.

“Incarceration does not merely deprive a prisoner of his liberty. It takes away a whole bundle of other human rights - the right to privacy, the right to sexual expression, the right to freedom of speech and the right to meaningful work,” he said. “Depriving a human being of these rights, stripping them of what we consider the minimum essentials for a decent life, is an act of brutality that rarely leads to a better life, either for the inmate or society.”

Spriano acknowledges the right of society to defend itself and believes some violent offenders need to be locked up. But for the nonviolent majority, there has to be a better way.

“Incarceration penalizes a family. A wife, children, relatives - these people committed no offense, but we rarely consider the consequences for them.”

Does he expect John Paul’s statement to produce change?

“I don’t have much confidence in documents,” he said. “But I have faith in people. If bishops, if priests, if believers pick up this issue, things can happen.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2000