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May 24, 2022

"A Catholic Perspective on Prison Conditions and Human Dignity"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Meghan J. Ryan now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

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.

May 24, 2022 at 02:36 PM | Permalink


Thank goodness the Framers made our law secular.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 24, 2022 11:38:34 PM

Bill - does this mean that we should not try to reform prisons such that more inmates don't return to crime after release and that we should label criminals as "irredeemable" and "scum' as listed in the article instead of easily flawed people like the rest of us who can change their behavior with the right social support?

Posted by: Brett Miler | May 25, 2022 10:50:35 AM

Brett Miller --

As is typically the case with me, it means exactly what it says -- that I'm glad the Framers made our law secular, i.e., free from the dictates of any particular religion.

Just for the record, though, I support improving prison conditions and have for years. I do not support diluting sentencing or other forms of accountability for criminals.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 25, 2022 1:14:32 PM

This is another Trojan horse, complaining about prison conditions when the real goal is emptying them.

Air conditioning? All of humanity lived without them until practically yesterday and now it is a cruel practice? Sewage? The biggest creators of sewage problems are the inmates themselves flushing pillow cases and other objects intending to create the problem.

Things like prison rape are problems, although overstated. What’s the solution? If you put 1500 very bad people in close proximity, they will do bad things.

Most prisons are run fairly efficiently considering the obstacles involved. The article is navel gazing without much in the way of solutions beyond emptying the places.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | May 25, 2022 9:17:11 PM

Hi Bill and Tarls -
I believe that most people, with the right tools, can change their behavior and that marginalizing criminals on the scope we do now is a recipe for disaster. Bill and Tarls will respond that the crime rate has plummeted in the era of more incarceration/police but more incarceration and police does not remove the triggers (situations, trauma, poor upbringing) that cause people to become criminally inclined. We should be not so quick to judge or label but instead find solutions that are cost effective and that allow offending individuals to grow and change. Brett Miler

Posted by: Brett Miler | May 26, 2022 12:19:07 PM

Thank you for all your efforts
I believe there are many people who feel like I read this article!

Posted by: Bordau | Jun 5, 2022 3:24:30 AM

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