The Jefferson City diocese’s vicar for prison ministry offers the following observations about changes in federal and state laws and policies affecting people who are in prison:
When we as Catholics reflect upon our prison system, we should be familiar with the document, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2000.
We should let this document help us form our approach to crime and criminal justice.
Here is just one quote: “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. We believe in responsibility, accountability, and legitimate punishment. Those who harm others or damage property must be held accountable for the hurt they have caused. The community has a right to establish and enforce laws to protect people and to advance the common good.
“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. We seek justice, not vengeance. We believe punishment must have clear purposes: protecting society and rehabilitating those who violate the law.”
At a Ministerial Alliance meeting I attended in 2004, a minister of another Christian denomination was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Catholic Church takes an interest in prison ministry. I stated, “We have been doing Prison Ministry since the time of St. Paul the Apostle.”
In reality, our parishes include victims of crime, victim advocates, defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, families of the incarcerated, corrections officers, police officers, those who work non-custody inside prisons, Department of Corrections officials past and present, lawmakers, people who have served time in jail and prison, volunteers who minister inside of jails and prison, volunteers who help those trying to stay out of prison upon release, probation and parole officers, jailers, sheriffs and people of every other facet of the criminal justice system.
Many Catholics visit our brothers and sisters in prisons and jails. Catholic priests celebrate Mass within the prisons, other people lead Communion services. So as Catholics, we have a lot of expertise and personal witness to offer to prison concerns.
I begin on the national level with “First Steps Act.” Many people who served time in prison assisted in the writing of the bill that eventually found bipartisan support, passed in the U.S. House and Senate and was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 21, 2018.
Please remember, this bill only affects those in federal custody, approximately 181,000 of the 2.1 million people who will go to sleep in a prison or jail cell tonight.
I want to say a few positive things about this bill while reminding our elected officials at the federal level that since it is called “First Steps” — the implication being that more still needs to be done.
The positive steps: this legislation includes incentives for people who are incarcerated to receive necessary vocational and educational skills so when they leave prison they are prepared for the job market. Having work, which has been a conduit for human dignity since the time of Adam and Eve, is one of the key factors to staying out of prison.
Another positive step is the ability for people in the federal system to be incarcerated within 500 miles of their family members. God created us to be in relationship, not in isolation. Having family support while in prison is an important ingredient to staying out upon release, so keeping people closer to family will be very helpful.
Happily, several issues of human dignity are also addressed in this bill. As was stated in 2008 legislation and reiterated in this new law, women will not be shackled during childbirth. In addition, feminine hygiene products will be given to all women in federal custody.
Finally, it is important to applaud for the actions taken in this bill to decrease the number of people in the federal prison system. Judges will have more leeway in how to handle mandatory minimum sentences.
“Three strikes and you’re out” rules will no longer carry mandatory life sentences but 25-year sentences. And, as begun with the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, those convicted for crack cocaine offenses will be treated the same as those convicted for powder cocaine offenses.
While these are, indeed, first steps, they do work to decrease the number of people in prison, help those who are in prison become successful members of society, and treat them more humanely while they are in the prison system.
These actions are in agreement with “A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.”
Turning toward Missouri, a new state law went into force on Aug. 28, 2018, that takes positive steps to strengthen the Missouri Crime Victims Compensation Program.
Two good things came from that bill: It made it much simpler to apply to receive the compensation, and it expanded the eligibility for compensation.
It’s always painful when someone in our human family suffers due to crime. And, so the human family should support those who suffer from crime.
Also, in the news is the shortage of corrections officers and the impact this is having on the staff of the department and residents of our adult correctional facilities.
The Catholic Church teaches that everyone deserves a just wage and should be allowed to work in a safe environment, even if the occupation has potential dangers. So we as Catholics support efforts to increase the number of corrections officers to keep the institutions running safely for staff and residents alike.
We are concerned about the overall health and well-being of current corrections employees and want to do what we can to assist them and their families. As the numbers of corrections officers fall short of needed numbers, men and women who are incarcerated often have chapel services, classes and rehabilitative services canceled due to staff being unable to cover that area of the institution.
Volunteers are very thankful when the staff are able to keep these activities going, but such is not always the case. When men and women are forced to stay in their cells because of staff shortages, less rehabilitation is happening; more idleness, restlessness and boredom sets in, creating a more dangerous atmosphere for everyone.
Corrections officers and the people who work for the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) deserve our respect, prayers and for us to do what we individually can to decrease their stress.
In agreement with Missouri DOC Director Anne Precythe, we support the DOC working with other agencies to reduce the number of people going to prison and the number of people returning to prison after their release.
More public safety forums such as the one held in Linn this past Dec. 7 are needed in order to continue the good conversations that are taking place.
As someone who has been involved in prison ministry for my entire Priesthood, I know that if we fix the addiction to drugs, we will dramatically reduce the number of people in prison.
Ask any volunteer in corrections or corrections employee and they will tell you the vast majority of people incarcerated are there because they were on some sort of illicit drug at the time of their crime.
Everyone in our community needs to be invited into the conversation of how to alleviate addictions to illicit and prescription drugs.
There are many good initiatives at the state level on alternatives to incarceration, drug courts, and treatment programs for those who are incarcerated. There are also good initiatives to continue the treatment once they are released.
If we want to lower the number of people arrested for crimes, including violent crimes, if we want to decrease the number of victims of crime, then we must address the drug addiction problem.
As the bishops’ document states, we cannot give up on people; we need to assist them with treatment the moment they are arrested through the completion of their sentence and beyond.
If you are interested in learning more about prison ministry, either inside or outside the institutions, please contact me at (573) 896-5010 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As more initiatives are started from my office, I will give updates in The Catholic Missourian, on the diocesan website, and in Catholic Charities communications.
As I write the stories, I will explain how you can be involved.
Fr. Corel is pastor of St. Andrew parish in Holts Summit.