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Harshness toward prisoners breeds trouble

U.S. citizens are used to thinking of themselves as champions of human rights. So it may be jarring to consider the possibility that human rights abuses occur regularly, daily, in prisons throughout the country, under the guise of maintaining law and order.

Prolonged use of solitary confinement, a U.S. invention once largely abandoned, has made a comeback. As part of the prison-building/harsh-sentencing craze sweeping the culture, solitary confinement no longer causes us to cringe. Perhaps it is because we have gotten beyond imagining the cruelty involved in locking up a human being in severely cramped quarters for all but one or two hours of the day.

More likely, though, it is because we are unaware of what is being done in the name of our safety. Whatever the reason, it must be known that what is being done, under a number of international conventions, would be considered a violation of human rights.

Prison is a grim and violent place. Technology now allows punishment to go on with an absolute minimum of human contact. And the prevalent mood in society allows punishment to go on virtually unnoticed, tucked away in austere, remote concrete vaults.

What is taking place quietly on the American penal landscape -- more and more prisons, often built by for-profit companies to accommodate harsher sentences dealt out with little judicial discretion allowed the sitting judge -- provokes some striking moral questions.

Perhaps that is why the American bishops, with keen regard for the victims of crime, nevertheless dared to venture into a tangle of issues that easily could have remained out of sight and mind.

In a recently released statement on the issue titled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” the bishops write: “We bishops question whether private, for-profit corporations can effectively run prisons. The profit motive may lead to reduced efforts to change behaviors, treat substance abuse and offer skills necessary for reintegration into the community.”

Those concerns are multiplied with the increased use of solitary confinement, where prisoners are offered no hope of rehabilitation or training.

“Regardless of who runs prisons, we oppose the increasing use of isolation units, especially in the absence of due process, and the monitoring and professional assessment of the effects of such confinement on the mental health of inmates.”

What the bishops seek is nothing short of a fundamental shift in attitude of the wider culture. But it is not for altruistic or religious reasons alone that they preach a revamping of the penal system. It becomes clearer each month and with each new cellblock constructed and each new supermax that goes up in some rural setting that our prison system is not working.

The most frightening practical aspect of the lock-‘em-up-and-forget-‘em school of jurisprudence is the reality that only a very few will remain locked up and forgotten for long.

The bishops argue that the immense amount of money now being spent to build more prisons and increase security would be better invested in programs to rehabilitate and train prisoners who eventually will be returning to the general population.

“Our society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and retribution to restoration thereby indicating a failure to recognize prisoners as human beings,” the bishops write.

“In some ways, an approach to criminal justice that is inspired by a Catholic vision is a paradox. We cannot and will not tolerate behavior that threatens lives and violates the rights of others,” they write. “At the same time, a Catholic approach does not give up on those who violate these laws. We believe that both victims and offenders are children of God. Despite their very different claims on society, their lives and dignity should be protected and respected.”

In the end, say the bishops, punishment must have two clear purposes: protecting society and rehabilitating those who violate the law.

Right now, we are doing neither well. By refusing to spend money training and rehabilitating, we are assuring a perpetual and growing population of dangerous, unreformed ex-prisoners in our midst.

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000