When Pope Francis visits the United States next week, one stop on his itinerary will be a prison outside of Philadelphia. He has visited prisons in Italy and other countries to remind us of the dignity of even those convicted of crime.
Pope Francis has said, “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.”
While conditions in U.S. prisons might be a bit more humane than those in the notorious Palmasola prison he visited in Bolivia in July, our criminal-justice system is nevertheless broken, and it needlessly continues to break up families and communities throughout our country.
The United States incarcerates more of our population than any other Western country, more than even the Soviet Union did. Today, there are more than 2.2 million people in prison in this country on any given day — and in the course of a year some 13.5 million passed through correctional institutions.
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In Florida, state prisons, which house about 100,000 people, have been tainted by scandals in recent years, with various allegations of prisoner abuse, and even murder by guards, still being investigated.
How did this come about? There are lots of reasons, of course. The breakup and dissolution of American families, especially among the poor, certainly left many young people rudderless. Many did not only lose their way; they never learned the way.
Access to better legal counsel and resources often allow rich and better-educated offenders to defer or avoid prison. The incarcerated tend to be ill-educated, mentally ill individuals, drug addicts or the poor. And because of tough and ill-considered sentencing and parole laws that seek more to punish than to rehabilitate, our prison populations continue to grow.
“Three strikes” laws often end up sentencing minor criminals to a lifetime of jail for what are relatively petty third offenses. Justice is supposedly blind — but given the inequities of the criminal-justice system, one could rightly say that justice is crippled.
Our Judeo-Christian tradition has always called for the humane treatment of prisoners and has emphasized that imprisonment should lead to the rehabilitation of the prisoner so that he can return to society and resume his place as a productive citizen. The reality of prisons today is far from this ideal.
While society needs to be protected from the worse among us, there is little effort to rehabilitate the nonviolent and the misguided. And while the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, what is happening in our prisons is cruel and inhuman.
The spread of infectious diseases, including AIDS, and the sexual violence that occurs within prison walls point out just how inhuman conditions are in the nation’s prison system.
All this reflects the sad reality of the incarcerated, whether they are in a small county jail or a large federal prison. Their world is one of pain and despair. Because nobody wants to live next door to a correctional institution, prisons are usually built in isolated rural areas; inmates end up warehoused far from their families — “Out of sight, out of mind.” The rest of society allows itself to simply ignore them.
Violence begets violence: Man’s inhumanity to man consists not only of crime itself but also how we as a society treat the wrongdoer. The inmate is our brother or sister in Christ, a child of God who, in spite of whatever crime was committed, does not forfeit dignity as a child of God.
We must proclaim, promote the respect of each person’s dignity — this must include the unborn, the handicapped, the migrant, the elderly. We cannot fail to include the prisoner as well.
In the Archdiocese of Miami, many of priests, deacons and faithful minister to the incarcerated — truly a work of mercy. They take to heart Jesus’ words in his parable of the Last Judgment: “I was in prison and you visited me.” After all, Jesus himself was imprisoned and suffered crucifixion, the means of capital punishment of his time. From the cross, he beatified a common criminal whom history now knows as the “Good Thief” because he “stole” heaven — getting there even before the sinless virgin.
During his visit to the United States, Pope Francis will remind us: “God is in everyone’s life.”
Thomas Wenski is the archbishop of Miami.