Prison Reform

Prison Reform February 23, 2023

Tim Pearce: Alcatraz Prison / flickr

From Dostoevsky’s  House of the Dead, reflecting upon his own prison experience, to The Shawshank Redemption, based upon Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, literature and films have a way of presenting the needs of prisoners, showing their humanity, and in doing show, proving that they should be treated with dignity and respect. Their needs should not squashed. They need socialization. They need love. They need people to care for them. They need some level of freedom so that they can grow and become better persons, capable of eventually returning to society. Prisoners need to be treated humanely. When they are not, we should not be surprised what happens next, as their actions will reflect the inhumanity shown to them, for they will have learned from society that inhumanity can be and is often justified.

If criminals are not treated humanely when they are in prison, they will not reform. Indeed, they likely  will become worse. Far from helping them properly reestablish their place in society, their time in prison will only reinforce their separation from it.. They will not learn why or how they should change their ways. If we want them to reform, we must reform the way treat them. Only then can prison become something more than another form of vengeance, and instead, a place where justice can be promoted. True justice needs to be restorative, not retributive. It should encourage those who have done wrong to make satisfaction for their wrongdoing (and in this way, prisons can be penitential), but it must do so with mercy, recognizing that penance should be a process and not impossible to fulfill. Therefore, instead of having criminals shoved into prison, shunned from society for eternity, we should make sure they have the opportunity to find their way back into society, and we should do so in a way which heals the harm which has been done, both to society but also to the criminals themselves.

Christianity, as it teaches us to love all, teaches us to look at and love our enemies. This does not mean we have to be foolish, but it means, we should wish those who act towards us as enemies would change in such a way that they will no longer be our enemies. We should examine why they act as they do. If we have done something to cause them to become our enemies, that is, if we have unjustly engaged them and hurt them, we should change our ways and do what we can to fix the problem. The same can and should be said about criminals. We should discover why they have become criminals, and consider whether or not we are in part responsible; if we are, then not only should criminals do penance for what they have done, we should do so as well. Even if we cannot discern any way our actions have led them to act unjustly we should still recognize that the love we are expected to show to our enemies should also be extended to those who are criminals. “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25:36 RSV). We should love them. We should do what we can on their behalf, helping them the best we can, so that they can change for the better. In doing so, the common good will be improved.

Prison reform must start with us. We must look to the prison system, as well as the social structure (or system), which we find ourselves living in, and recognize their deficiencies. And, if we are to make things better, we can’t do so if we don’t start with ourselves. We must carefully look at ourselves as a society and see if we have done anything which encouraged or forced people to become criminals. If so, we must do something about it. Thus, for example, if we created a system where people are forced to steal in order to survive, and then punish those who steal when they steal for their own survival, that system must be changed or discarded. When systematic structures of sin hindered people from attaining their basic needs, it is those structures which end up forcing people to act in such a way as to become criminals. While, in many societies, it is recognized that those who steal food, when in desperate need, should not be punished, in other societies, like ours, we find that they are further abused before they are thrown to the mercy of the courts, where they are likely to find themselves facing unjust punishment. We must recognize why many become criminals, and if it is something which we have done that made them do so, we must do what we can to change the system, eliminating the best we can, those sinful structures, like racism, which keep people down and force them to act in ways which reflect the abuse they have received.

Similarly, if and when someone is justly imprisoned, and so kept away from society because of the harm they have caused, we still need to consider them as people who need love, people who need respect, people we hope can change. We should want them to find their way back into society. Not everyone can and will be reformed, but we will never know who they are in advance. We should never give up hope on anyone. Even if there are some whose conditions look as if they might never be able to be fully reformed during their temporal life, we should hope for their eschatological reform and work for it the best we can. We should never treat anyone unjustly, even if they themselves act unjustly.

Even if someone might not be able to be fully reformed in their life, they can still change and become better; we should not let perfection become the enemy of the good. In order to encourage that, we should encourage them to do things which will promote their improvement, that is, we should encourage them to do what is good, making sure they have the opportunities necessary to do such good. We should never cut them off from what could and would help them become better. Part of the Good News of the Gospel is that no one needs to be set aside in some sort of eternal prison due to their sins: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isa. 61:1 RSV). We, therefore, should strive to put this in effect, to help those who are imprisoned find their freedom. And when the justice system does not do this, we must work for reform.

Pope Benedict XVI,  was clear: the prison system should be geared towards restorative, not retributive, justice. Prisons should be run with the intention to facilitate reform, and not to serve merely as a place to keep criminals away from the rest of society, where they are locked up and ignored, or worse, mistreated:

If human justice in this area is to look to divine justice and be shaped by that higher vision, the re-educational purpose of the sentence must be regarded not as an ancillary or secondary aspect of the penal system, but rather as its culminating and defining feature. In order to “practise justice”, it is not enough that those found guilty of crimes be simply punished: it is necessary that in punishing them, everything possible be done to correct and improve them. When this does not happen, justice is not done in an integral sense. In any event, it is important to avoid giving rise to a situation where imprisonment that fails in its re-educational role becomes counter-educational and paradoxically reinforces rather than overcomes the tendency to commit crime and the threat posed to society by the individual.[1]

St. John Paul II said it best: when dealing with prisons, “Measures that are merely repressive or punitive, to which it is normal to have recourse today, prove inadequate for achieving the goal of the genuine rehabilitation of prisoners. Consequently, you must rethink the situation of prisons, as you are doing, regarding their foundations and goals.”[2] Christians should visit prisons, making sure that prisoners are shown love and care, but also, making sure that the prison system is not being used to hinder their reform. Prisoners need love, for love is what can and will help criminals become better people. And if we love them, we will wonder, like Pope Francis, why someone has become a criminal. We will try to fix those underlying causes, especially if it is revealed that it was the brutality of the system we live in which led to their criminal behavior::

Visiting people in prison is a work of mercy which, especially today, takes on a particular value due to the various forms of “justicialism” to which we are exposed. Therefore, let no one point a finger at another. Instead, let us all be instruments of mercy, and have attitudes of sharing and respect. I often think about detainees… I think of them often, I carry them in my heart. I wonder what led them to delinquency, and how they managed to succumb to various forms of evil. Yet, along with these thoughts, I feel that they all need closeness and tenderness, because God’s mercy works wonders. How many tears I have seen shed on the cheeks of prisoners who had perhaps never wept before in their lives; and this is only because they feel welcomed and loved. [3]

If we merely lock criminals up in prison, throw away the key, and keep prisoners away from loved ones, away from the things in life which could elevate them and make them better, we end up sacrificing them and their potential good as a way to keep the current system, with all its systematic structures of sin, in place. With the authoritarian, legalistic mentality which is had by those who support such actions, in the end, it is clear, we end up sacrificing people to perpetuate an unjust system.  Such sacrifice is a kind of idolatry, and as such, has no place in the Christian life.  We are to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2 RSV). This includes the burdens of the poor, the dispossessed, and those who have been unjustly pushed down so much that they struck out at anyone and everyone near them, becoming, as a result, violent criminals  It also means we are to help bear the burden of criminals, those who have broken the law, because Jesus himself has done that for us in relation to our sins.

Sadly, so many of our leaders in society, and with it, those Christians who support such leaders, have abandoned their responsibility. Instead of treating criminals as people who need love and respect, they are looked upon merely as things to throw away and exploit. For-profit prisons represent one of the  worst manifestation of this problem, but the problem is not exclusive to them. Many politicians want to find a way to use criminals instead of considering their own welfare. Thus, for example, we can read about the way many prisons are trying to cut prisoner contact with the outside world, with their loved ones. They are not being allowed to receive physical mail, while they are finding it exceedingly costly to use electronic forms of communication:

In recent years, many prison systems have either tried or fully implemented a policy that interferes with incarcerated people’s mail in a way we haven’t seen in our many years fighting to protect family communication behind bars: Prisons are increasingly taking incoming letters, greeting cards, and artwork, making photocopies or digital scans of them, and delivering those inferior versions to recipients. This practice of mail scanning, either performed at the prison itself or off-site using a third-party vendor, strips away the privacy and the sentimentality of mail, which is often the least expensive and most-used form of communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones.[4]

This is being done, for example, in New York:

Under a new city contract that puts electronic tablets in the hands of Rikers detainees, correction officials can surveil correspondence using keyword searches and collect fees for some messaging services, according to documents obtained by Gothamist through a public records request.[5]

It is becoming clear, the prison system is being run by those who lack compassion for those who are imprisoned. Everyone within it is being treated with the same, so that even those guilty of minor crimes are at the receiving  end of great amounts of abuse. There is no compassion for them as humans. We can see this in the way many, especially those guilty of minor offenses, even when they are dying,  are being kept locked up without adequate medical help (or contact with loved ones). They are being shown no compassion, even when a law, signed by President Trump, encouraged leniency in such cases:

More than four years ago, former President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill meant to help free people in federal prisons who are terminally ill or aging and who pose little or no threat to public safety. Supporters predicted the law would save taxpayers money and reverse decades of tough-on-crime policies that drove incarceration rates in the U.S. to among the highest in the world.

But data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows judges rejected more than 80% of compassionate release requests filed from October 2019 through September 2022.[6]

And, of course, there is no greater representation of societal cruelty and hate, of societal injustice, then the death penalty, as its purpose is to squash someone’s life instead of helping them to repair their life and society in general.

The mentality so many have of prisons, what they are for, and how they are to be used, must change. Prisons should be about helping the people within, not making them worse. It should be about restorative justice. Society, likewise, needs to engage restorative justice, dealing with the structures of sin within it which leads people to take on a life of crime. It is true, we do not have the means to transform everyone, to heal all the wounds which have been caused. Some people might need to remain in prison all their lives (even if it that should never be our goal). Nonetheless, even  those who never reform in such a way as to find their way back to general society should be loved by us; we should be concerned about them and their well-being, for, even if they do not completely change, by being cared for, they can certainly begin the transformation they need, and become better than they were before they were sent to prison.

It is important we remember what justice is. We should always strive to  restore what was lost due to injustice. And that means, we must truly embrace prisons, not as a place for retributive punishment, but as institutions which help for the restoration of true justice:

Judicial and penal institutions play a fundamental role in protecting citizens and safeguarding the common good (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2266). At the same time, they are to aid in rebuilding “social relationships disrupted by the criminal act committed” (cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 403). By their very nature, therefore, these institutions must contribute to the rehabilitation of offenders, facilitating their transition from despair to hope and from unreliability to dependability. When conditions within jails and prisons are not conducive to the process of regaining a sense of a worth and accepting its related duties, these institutions fail to achieve one of their essential ends. Public authorities must be ever vigilant in this task, eschewing any means of punishment or correction that either undermine or debase the human dignity of prisoners. In this regard, I reiterate that the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (Ibid., 404).  [7]

Sadly, as can be seen in the way so many think of criminals, in the way so many think of prisons, and the way society as a whole is encouraged to think of criminals and the criminal justice system, we are making things worse, not better. We are not embracing justice. Again, it is important to state that  justice must be restorative. It must go beyond mere punishments, for such punishments, of themselves, do nothing to fix the damage which has been done. And so we, as a society must change the way we think of justice and how we treat criminals. If we change, then we can help prisoners change as well. If we don’t change, they will only represent the systematic injustices which society has produced, injustices which they were trained to think were acceptable because society as a whole acts in such a manner. But if we show them we care, if we show them we want what is good for them as well as society, that is, if we show them we care, they will they will more likely react to us in kind. And so, as St. John Paul II said, , “In this light, the search for alternative forms of punishment other than imprisonment should be encouraged and support given to an authentic rehabilitation of prisoners through programmes of human, professional and spiritual formation.” [8] Until we do so, the criminal justice system, far from creating justice, will end up promoting and sustaining injustice.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, “To The Participants In The XVII Council of Europe Conference On Directors Of Prison Administration” (11-22-2012).

[2] St. John Paul II, “To The Participants In The International Conference For Penitentiary Directors In Europe” (11-26-2004). ¶3.

[3] Pope Francis, “General Audience” (11-9-2016)

[4] Leah Wang, “Mail Scanning: A Harsh And Exploitive New Trend In Prisons” in Prison Policy Initiative (11-17-2022).

[5] Matt Katz, “Coning Soon To NYC Jails: Electronic Surveillance, Fees To Text Loved Ones” in Gothamist (2-13-2023; rev. 2-14-2023)

[6] Fred Clasen-Kelly, “A Law Was Meant To Free Sick Or Aging Inmates. Instead, Some Are Left to Die In Prison,” in KHN (NPR) (2-21-2023).

[7] Pope Benedict XVI, “To The Participants In The Twelfth World Congress Of The International Commission Of Catholic Prison Care.”.

[8] St. John Paul II, “To The Participants In The International Conference For Penitentiary Directors In Europe” (11-26-2004). ¶4.


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