A Catholic Perspective on Prison Conditions and Human Dignity
Catholicism and Criminal Law (2022/2023 Forthcoming)
13 Pages Posted: 23 May 2022 Last revised: 1 Jun 2022
Date Written: May 18, 2022
Criminal offenders in the United States are often reviled. Instead of viewing them as individuals who need help, many view them as “irredeemable,” “dirt,” “slime,” “scum,” “animal[s],” “sewer rats.” As Catholics, though, we are taught to resist such impulses. We are called to put aside our overwhelming grief and fear when facing offenders and resist seeking revenge. We are instead asked to reach out our hands to sinners and offer them our forgiveness. This may be difficult to do, but walking in the steps of Christ requires just that.
In following Jesus’ path not only are we working against our natural instincts of fear and revenge, but we are also working against the mass machinery of the American criminal justice system. Today, in the United States, there is often the mentality of locking up an offender and throwing away the key. Out of sight, out of mind. We generally keep offenders behind closed doors and, as measured against the practices in other countries, we keep them there for very long periods of time. Indeed, with nearly two million people, or approximately 0.6% of our population, behind bars, we incarcerate more individuals per capita than any other country in the world. Further, prisons are often located out of town, in remote locations; prison visits are relatively rare, and there is often little mainstream reporting of what goes on behind prison walls; and some incarceration facilities have even claimed trade-secret protection over their policies. Once an individual has been accused, convicted, and sentenced, he is often erased from most of society’s consciousness.
Behind the tall prison walls topped with razor wire, there is much that Catholics should be concerned about. Some prisons lack air conditioning and adequate plumbing, leaving inmates suffering in blistering conditions and wading through sewage. Many prisons suffer from severe overcrowding, contributing to unlivable conditions where vulnerable inmates are neglected and left in unsanitary conditions. Most prisons offer insufficient healthy food and inadequate medical care. Prison violence, including sexual assault, is a frequent occurrence. And prisons regularly place inmates in solitary confinement even though the practice is known to cause severe and permanent physical and mental health problems.
In his recent encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis suggested that Catholics should work to traverse the wall of secrecy surrounding prison conditions and push to improve them:
"All Christians and people of good will are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms, but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom."
Today’s prison conditions are often abhorrent, and we have much work to do.
Keywords: dignity, human dignity, prison conditions, Catholicism, proportionality, humanness
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