Mississippi prison system needs reform

By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
In the year 2000, the Catholic Bishops of the United States wrote a Pastoral Letter, Responsibility, Rehabilitation-Restoration, in the spirit of jubilee justice for the new millennium that addressed the agonizing reality of crime, punishment, and recidivism afflicting far too many people in the United States of America.
More than a decade later most of these intractable problems remain with us, and as Christians and citizens committed to the common good, we are called to redouble our efforts to bring about a more just and humane society that allows for greater liberty and justice for all.
I want to cite in its entirety the introduction to the Pastoral Letter as a forum for reflection, and a call to action to our Catholic people who can point proudly to a strong commitment to social justice in our state.
“As Catholic bishops, our response to crime in the United States is a moral test for our nation and a challenge for our church. Although the FBI reports that the crime rate is falling, crime and fear of crime still touch many lives and polarize many communities. Putting more people in prison and, sadly, more people to death has not given Americans the security we seek. It is time for a new national dialogue on crime and corrections, justice and mercy, responsibility and treatment. As Catholics, we need to ask the following: How can we restore our respect for law and life? How can we protect and rebuild communities, confront crime without vengeance, and defend life without taking life? These questions challenge us as pastors and as teachers of the Gospel.
Our tasks are to restore a sense of civility and responsibility to everyday life, and promote crime prevention and genuine rehabilitation. The common good is undermined by criminal behavior that threatens the lives and dignity of others, and by policies that seem to give up on those who have broken the law (offering too little treatment and too few alternatives to either years in prison or the execution of those who have been convicted of terrible crimes).
New approaches must move beyond the slogans of the moment (such as “three strikes and you’re out”) and the excuses of the past (such as “criminals are simply trapped by their background”). Crime, corrections, and the search for real community require far more than the policy clichés of conservatives and liberals.
A Catholic approach begins with the recognition that the dignity of the human person applies to both victim and offender. As bishops, we believe that the current trend of more prisons and more executions, with too little education and drug treatment, does not truly reflect Christian values and will not really leave our communities safer. We are convinced that our tradition and our faith offer better alternatives that can hold offenders accountable and challenge them to change their lives; reach out to victims and reject vengeance; restore a sense of community and resist the violence that has engulfed so much of our culture.”
“We approach this topic, however, with caution and modesty. The causes of crime are complex. The ways to overcome violence are not simple. The chances of being misunderstood are many.”  However, the time is upon us to act.
“All those whom we consulted seemed to agree on one thing: the status quo is not really working — victims are often ignored, offenders are often not rehabilitated, and many communities have lost their sense of security. All of these committed people spoke with a sense of passion and urgency that the system is broken in many ways. We share their concern and believe that it does not live up to the best of our nation’s values and falls short of our religious principles.”
Lawmakers in Mississippi recently took a strong step forward in the state’s criminal justice system by changing the sentencing laws for non-violent offenders. This is a just and humane approach that places front and center the rehabilitation of the offender and his or her restoration to family and society as the primary goal.
However, much more needs to be done and an accompanying letter by C.J. Rhodes exposes the serious injustice of the prison-for-profit industry in the state of Mississippi. As Pastor Rhodes so rightly points out a for-profit industry “will lobby to lock up as many people as possible, keep them there as long as possible, and make sure they return as many times as possible.”  Fifteen years ago this industry was emerging around the country.  In 2015 it has mushroomed, especially in Mississippi.
For-profit prisons along with our state and federal prisons reveal an ongoing bleak picture for our minority brothers and sisters. Recent studies show that African, Hispanic, and Native Americans are often treated more harshly than other citizens in their encounters with the criminal justice system (including police activity, the handling of juvenile defendants and prosecution and sentencing). These studies confirm that the racism and discrimination that continue to haunt our nation are reflected in similar ways in the criminal justice system.  Moreover, our society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and retribution to restoration thereby indicating a failure to recognize prisoners as human beings.
As we approach the culmination of Lent and the most sacred of days during Holy Week, a time when we celebrate the forgiveness of our sins, the promise of eternal life and the presence of the Kingdom of God in our midst, perhaps we can apply the wisdom of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a model for personal responsibility, restoration and reconciliation in our society.
The four traditional elements of the Sacrament of Reconciliation have much to teach us about taking responsibility, making amends, and reintegrating into community:
Contrition – Genuine sorrow, regret, or grief over one’s wrongs and a serious resolution not to repeat the wrong.
Confession – Clear acknowledgment and true acceptance of responsibility for the hurtful behavior.
Satisfaction – The external sign of one’s desire to amend one’s life (this “satisfaction,” whether in the form of prayers or good deeds, is a form of “compensation” or restitution for the wrongs or harms caused by one’s sin).
Absolution – After someone has shown contrition, acknowledged his or her sin, and offered satisfaction, then Jesus, through the ministry of the priest and in the company of the church community, forgives the sin and welcomes that person back into “communion.”
The blood of the Innocent One poured out for the salvation of all from the cross is the reason for our hope that justice and peace on a grander scale are achievable, even in our broken world.
(On Friday, March 20 from 10:00-12:00 Noon the first hearing before the Governor’s Task Force on Prison Reform is to take place. Our Catholic voice will be heard on this occasion and moving forward.)