Taking a tough look at U.S. prison reform

This week our In Focus tackles the thorny moral and social issues surrounding our prison system (see Pages 9-12). 

Most people would agree the system is broken. The United States holds the dubious record of being the country with the most people behind bars and the highest percentage of people behind bars.

That’s a major drain on our economy, families and communities. It also raises a host of ethical concerns. Is our prison policy driven by more than simply a desire to mete out justice and protect society from dangerous people? 

Some experts think so. They say there’s been a shift in recent decades in our country toward a sense of anger, fear, vindictiveness toward prisoners. And that even Catholics have been caught up in the national mood. 

It’s pretty easy to check your own emotional state by simply naming some of the favorite villains of the day and observing your reaction. “Bernie Madoff.” “Osama bin Laden.” String ’em high? Or sincere desire and solicitude that they’ll come in contact with God’s mercy and that, God willing, we’ll spend eternity with them? 

To be honest, I usually find myself coming up short on these tests. But it is worth stopping and reflecting about our attitudes toward prisoners — a sort of examination of conscience — and not only because Christ himself told us that we can find him in the prisoner (see Mt 25:36). 

One of the seven corporal works of mercy in the Catholic tradition is visiting those in prison. 

In some ways, visiting prisoners may be the work of mercy par excellence. Consider how well it pairs with a number of the spiritual works of mercy: “to instruct the ignorant” ... “to counsel the doubtful” ... “to admonish sinners” ... “to bear wrongs patiently” ... “to forgive offenses willingly.” 

The core of our Faith is reconciliation with God. It is all about sin, forgiveness, mercy, salvation. Those themes come into stark relief in a unique way when we’re considering policies of criminal justice and incarceration. 

In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“Gospel of Life”), Pope John Paul II talked about what society tries to accomplish with its criminal justice system: 

“The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is ‘to redress the disorder caused by the offense.’ Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.” 

It is those latter, secondary goals of punishment we don’t seem to be doing too well at. Let me know your thoughts at feedback@osv.com.