In the United States, proposed solutions to criminal justice issues are often wrapped up in short, simple catchphrases. Politicians want to be “tough on crime.” The rule for criminals should be “three strikes, you’re out.” And when all else fails, we “lock them up and throw away the key.” 

The result of such philosophies is a nation with an ever-growing number of its citizens behind bars. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the start of 2009, more than 2.3 million Americans were incarcerated in federal and state prisons or local jails, giving the United States both the highest prison population and highest imprisonment rate in the world. Among the current adult population in the United States, one in 99 Americans is living behind bars. 

Yet, as the problem has grown more severe, few true solutions have been proposed. More prisons have been built to deal with overcrowding, which has only allowed for greater numbers of inmates. And the soaring costs associated with maintaining correctional facilities have put a strain on many state budgets, which has led to cuts in other areas and an increased burden on taxpayers. 

Shift toward retribution 

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the primary purpose of punishment is to “redress the disorder” of the crime, but also to protect society and rehabilitate the criminal. 

Recognizing both a moral and social need for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, the U.S. Catholic bishops in 2000 issued a document titled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration,” which pointed out concerns with the American view of incarceration. 

“In the United States, history tells us that the prison system was, in some ways, built on a moral vision of the human person and society — one that combined a spiritual rekindling with punishment and correction,” the bishops wrote. “But along the way, this vision has too often been lost.” 

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

The bishops identified a number of serious flaws in the correctional system, including violence against prisoners, a lack of programs within prisons, and an attitude that overlooks the dignity and rights of those convicted of crimes. But the changing perception of the role of prisons and the handling of convicted criminals actually began several decades earlier and has only grown more troubling in recent years, according to Andrew Skotnicki, chair of religious studies at New York’s Manhattan College. 

“Really, since the early ’70s, our theory in America has been that the retributive dimension of punishment should take the lead in our philosophy of incarceration,” said Skotnicki, an expert in the moral and theological foundations of the criminal justice system. “So, gone are the days in which we thought that there was some rehabilitative ideal involved in the whole punitive process.” 

Skotnicki told Our Sunday Visitor the fact that about 70 percent of Catholic Americans support use of the death penalty is evidence that desire for vengeance is alive and well. 

“The average American — and I am sad to even say this, but the average Catholic — wants these people to suffer,” he said. “And the worst part of it is that it has nothing to do with the Gospel of Our Lord, who went out of his way to choose the people that society had rejected.”

Monastic roots 

The evolution of prisons in society has strong ties to the Christian tradition, with roots dating back to the Old Testament, said Willard Oliver, author of “Catholic Perspectives on Crime and Criminal Justice” (Lexington Books, $75). 

“There is a recognition even in the Bible that the secular government has the responsibility for protecting its citizens by removing offenders from the street,” Oliver told OSV. “But if you also look at the concepts of the New Testament, there’s the element that [prisons] should also be a place for rehabilitation and correction … to provide the individual with the ability to, when they come out of prison, return to being a good citizen within the community.” 

Skotnicki explained that much of the American concept of imprisonment was originally based on the monastic system, with a strong emphasis on personal reflection and a sense of penance to atone for one’s sins. In the early Christian community, such models were used to help those members of the Church who had fallen into sin to reconnect with God and reorient their lives. 

“As Catholics, we believe that punishment in and of itself really has little value unless the person goes through the penitential journey,” Skotnicki said. “Just to say ‘I’ll lock you up to punish you’ doesn’t make much sense, any more than a priest gives you a penance for absolution to punish you.” 

The most productive prison environment, he said, is one that most closely resembles a monastery. Following the Benedictine model of work and prayer, an ideal prison atmosphere would allow for reflection, introspection, spiritual counsel, and also some type of productive labor that makes a positive contribution to society — all things that are many times lacking in today’s prison settings. 

“The more that those things — the creative, the spiritual, the ascetic — come together, that’s a formula for human betterment that should be practiced by everyone. But that was certainly the Church’s idea in using confinement as a tool for the rediscovery of the best part of one’s self,” Skotnicki said. 

Having strayed from the monastic ideal, the current American penal system often presents conditions that are both harmful to prisoners and strips them of their basic human rights. From gang violence to forced labor, the ethical treatment of prisoners has become a serious concern in correctional institutions, stemming from the attitude that prisoners deserve to be punished. 

According to Oliver, that punitive aspect of corrections is often taken too far. 

“These are still human beings, and they deserve punishment only in the sense of being separated from society, to have that time to realize they’ve done something wrong and to be given that time to reform,” Oliver told OSV. 

“Their freedoms are taken away — that’s the punishment — but they should be treated fairly, with respect and with kindness.” 

Rehabilitative course 

In addition to offering a penitential setting for criminals, prisons are most effective when they are able to provide programs that cultivate useful skills and offer education that will assist inmates reintegrate into society. 

Ron Zeilinger, director of the national Catholic prison outreach Dismas Ministry, told OSV that many prison systems are recognizing the need for such programs as an answer to the staggering number of released inmates who, without the means to find employment and live independently, wind up back behind bars. 

“The emphasis has been overwhelmingly on re-entry assistance, and there are many systems working very hard,” Zeilinger said. “They recognize that unless they get on the ball with this, in both preplanning and training prior to their release, it is very difficult [for released prisoners] otherwise.” 

But even with political support behind programs focused on helping to prepare inmates for a smooth transition to life outside of prison, not all institutions are willing to implement them. 

“Unfortunately, there are many facilities or systems where it is a holding pen, and it is not necessarily as enlightened as we’d like to see it, where they’d get the training, the education and the life skills so that when they leave they are a better person and ready to meet the challenges of society,” Zeilinger said. 

Part of the reason that some prisons are limiting the programs they offer is that such initiatives just don’t fit into already tight budgets. Although costs vary from state to state, on average it takes approximately $24,000 a year to pay for just one inmate. 

“They may start a lot of these programs — counseling, spiritual programs, job-orientation programs, higher education — but as soon as there’s an economic crunch, those are the programs that are first cut,” said Oliver. 

Re-evaluating sentencing

Budget concerns have grown so severe in the past year that some states have turned to early release programs to cut down on costs. But other states have taken a more long-term vision by re-evaluating their sentencing structure and looking for ways to help convicted criminals better their lives without going to jail. 

Zeilinger pointed to a Wisconsin initiative called “Treatment Instead of Prisons,” a policy that calls for sentencing those arrested on nonviolent, drug-related charges to rehabilitation facilities. Placing these criminals in such an environment, he explained, is both beneficial to the individual and a relief on the state’s expenses. 

“It is about $24,000 per inmate per year to keep them in the prison system and about $7,000 a year to have them in a treatment program where they are getting the drug or alcohol rehab they need,” Zeilinger said. “So, especially with this budget crunch, states are looking at alternative ways to handle these situations.” 

Although a heightened concern for public safety in the wake of terrorist attacks and violent crimes has resulted in many Americans feeling that the best solution is to keep all criminals safely behind bars, Skotnicki argues that from a Catholic perspective, even the worst offenders deserve a second chance.  

And rather than holding firm on keeping individuals in prison for the duration of their sentence, he said that sentencing laws should be amended to take into account a simple Christian ideal: No prisoner is ever beyond redemption. 

“Nobody is unsalvageable or irredeemable, and that includes Osama bin Laden and Bernie Madoff, the so called ‘demon of the day,’” Skotnicki said. “In God’s time, everybody can be brought into harmony with the Gospel.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

Prison ministry helps the incarcerated grow in spirituality

Christine Shimrock considers her work to be much like that of any other lay parish minister. Except in Shimrock’s case, the “parish” she serves exists within the confines of a maximum security prison. 

Shimrock, the Catholic chaplain for two men’s correctional institutions in the state of Ohio, is one of many individuals who serve the spiritual needs of the imprisoned. From helping prisoners gain access to the sacraments to offering one-on-one counseling and running faith formation and fellowship programs, prison ministers strive to help those behind bars fully live their Catholic faith. 

“I am growing and nurturing a parish inside a prison. That’s my job,” Shimrock told Our Sunday Visitor. And although the parishioners are living under vastly different circumstances than most of the Catholic faithful, she said, there are many similarities between prison ministry and parish life. 

“Like any other parish, they are in different places in their walks, they are in different places in their convictions, they squabble with each other like people in the pews, they defend each other — it is really remarkable how closely it emulates my own parish,” she said.

Hunger for God 

While not all prisoners have an interest in faith-based ministry, Shimrock said those who do request her services have shown a serious desire to make important changes in their lives. 

“You are dealing with people who have decided, ‘I am going to change something. I don’t know what, I don’t know how, I don’t know for how long, but I am open to this,’” she said. “And that is a stark departure from many of the men who are incarcerated who may never reach that point.” 

Serving the spiritual needs of prisoners, however, has its share of difficulties. In some cases, prison restrictions require ministers to adapt their practices or limit what materials can be brought inside the facility. Other times, there are simply no chaplains or ministers available to serve a prison or jail. 

“There are a lot of challenges that might keep people away [from prisons], or from even thinking of or recalling their presence in our midst,” said Ron Zeilinger, director of Dismas Ministry, a national Catholic prison outreach program. “But these are baptized members of our faith community that really deserve adequate pastoral care.” 

Dismas Ministry — named for the repentant thief crucified alongside Jesus — aims to overcome some of those challenges by addressing the spiritual concerns of prisoners around the country. From simple needs, such as providing a Catholic Bible or prayer book, to offering self-directed courses in Scripture study and faith formation, Zeilinger said the organization serves a wide array of spiritual desires among inmates. 

The group also works with chaplains nationwide to provide materials to use in their ministry and helps inmates connect with faith communities for when they are released. 

“They have a strong prayer life, but they need people to support them. That is crucial,” Zeilinger said.

Witnessing transformation 

In the Diocese of Arlington, Va., La Salette Sister Connie Parcasio coordinates prison ministry volunteers who serve in the area’s 25 correctional facilities. In addition to offering Mass, confessions and Bible-study groups, the diocese also helps to facilitate Kairos retreats, a four-day interfaith Christian program conducted within the prison setting. 

Sister Connie told OSV that these retreats can often be the impetus for spiritual conversion in many inmates. 

“Right there, because the program is very intense for a successive four days, you can see many turnarounds,” she said. “They realize how much they have done wrong, and they are touched.” 

And when prison ministers return to work with these same inmates in the future, the lasting impact of these faith-based programs is evident, she said. 

“You can see that they are more considerate, they are more aware of other prisoners besides themselves,” she said. 

In the seven years that Shimrock has served in Ohio’s Lebanon Correctional Institution, she has encountered similar instances. 

“The changes in some of them have been remarkable,” she said. “It is the Holy Spirit working through me that allows them to accept the fact that they are lovable and forgivable and need to offer those same things to other people, even people who have hurt them in their lives.”

Facing opposition 

Yet, Shimrock said there is still opposition to prison ministry. Some question her presence because she is a woman working in a men’s institution, while others are not convinced that religious programming has any value within a prison. 

Those attitudes extend beyond just the prisons Shimrock serves in Ohio. As secretary for the board of the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association, she said that she has heard similar concerns regarding the merits of spiritual programming in prisons nationwide. 

“One of the biggest challenges that this ministry faces is the value that society places on it, including our own Catholic community,” she said. “And what we see across the country is that when the budget gets tight, one of the first things that gets cut is this ministry.”

In Virginia, Sister Connie said that there are even greater barriers created by those who run the prisons, particularly when it comes to bringing new members into the Catholic faith.  

“We used to be allowed to baptize an inmate who was interested in becoming a Catholic, but now baptizing them inside a jail is considered proselytizing. So when inmates express their desire to become Catholic, we have to be very careful that we don’t advertise that,” she said.  

Yet despite the obstacles ministers face, Sister Connie added, there are tremendous rewards for the inmates ­— and for the ministers. 

“I really feel blessed when I meet them. Even the way they pray is really touching,” Sister Connie said of her experiences with those in prison.  

“Whenever I talk to prisoners, I am always edified by the way they talk, by the way they see life, by the way they dream about a better life,” she said. “It is amazing.”

Ex-prisoner uses Catholic teaching to break 'criminal world culture'

There’s an old adage when dealing with criminals that it takes a thief to catch a thief. But David Lukenbill believes that saying can be taken one step further: It takes a reformed criminal to reform a criminal. 

Lukenbill knows firsthand how difficult it can be for a professional criminal to turn his or her life around. Many years ago, Lukenbill was drawn into a life of crime by the lure of monetary gains, which ultimately landed him inside a maximum security prison. And even though he started to experience some internal rehabilitation during a year in solitary confinement, it didn’t hold once he was back among the other inmates. 

“Once I got back out into the prison population, I pretty much reverted,” Lukenbill said. “The criminal world culture is so dominant in there, and it is pretty hard to counteract that.” 

But the seeds of spiritual renewal that were planted when Lukenbill was in prison eventually bore fruit later in his life. He turned his back on the criminal lifestyle and, having continued his education and converted to Catholicism, saw an opportunity to tackle the staggering rates of recidivism by helping other former prisoners change the course of their lives. 

Based on his own experience of the prison lifestyle, Lukenbill told Our Sunday Visitor that the traditional programs offered to facilitate criminal rehabilitation and re-entry often fail because they don’t get to the heart of the issue, which is internal conversion. 

“You can provide all the services that you want — and the research bears this out — but a service isn’t what changes a criminal,” he said. “Criminals are internally committed to being criminals, and rehabilitation is an internal process.” 

Noting the lack of success in many efforts, Lukenbill felt called to offer an alternative model. Relying on his experience and the tenants of Catholic social teaching, he founded The Lampstand Foundation, an organization that provides resources for reformed criminals who wish to help others find redemption after being released from prison. 

“The tools we are putting together are for other people like me who want to take what they’ve learned from their own conversion and help other people,” Lukenbill explained. 

And the catalyst for that change can often be found in the Church’s social teaching, which can provide both the intellectual and spiritual foundation for a criminal’s transformation, he added. 

“Once I really got into Catholic social teaching I saw how powerful it was to address the hold that the criminal world culture has on people who are criminals, including myself,” he said. “The potency of the social teaching was strong enough to trump that of the criminal world virtually at every point.” 

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America's Prison Population

The total population of all U.S. prisons, jails and correctional centers (not including immigration detention centers or juvenile facilities) as of Dec. 31, 2008, as compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

165,252 - Federal prison facilities
24,518 - Privately operated facilities
- Community Corrections Centers
1,320,145 - State prisons
785,556 - Local jails
2,304,115 -Total prison population