The Corporal Works of Mercy (4): To Visit the Imprisoned

This Holy Work has changed its meaning over time.  The first Christians were, as you know, outlaws; so it was expected that some of their number would be in prison at any given time.  Jesus was a prisoner; Paul was; Peter was; and many of the saints, bishops, and teachers of the first few centuries of Christian life were.  So free Christians took it upon themselves to visit their friends, bringing food, solace, encouragement, and when possible liberation.  They also sought the prisoners’ blessing, since to be imprisoned for being a Christian was a mark of great courage and faith.

These days things are different, at least in our part of the world.  (Christians continue to be imprisoned and even executed for their faith in the Middle East, in China, in Pakistan, in North Korea and in other countries.)  People in prison are there as the result of a judgment by a criminal-justice system that, while by no means perfect, does make them different from the Christian prisoners of Jesus’ day.  And modern prisons are not, by and large, visit-able places.  So how are we to understand this Holy Work today?

We might start by remembering that even the prisoner guilty of the most awful crime is still created in God’s image and is loved by God no less than God loves you or me.   Along with the protection of society from truly dangerous individuals, one goal of imprisonment should always be rehabilitation so that the “lost” can be “found” and restored to a right relationship with God and others.  But this costs money – for addiction treatment, for education, and for other aids to rehabilitation that are too-easily disposed of in times of budget cuts.  And these programs do serve both society and prisoners – a recent study from California showed that both incarceration rates and crime dropped as rehabilitation increased.[1]

Educating ourselves about the facts of imprisonment in the U.S. is another step. Consider:

  • The population of state and federal prisons grew by over 600% between 1972 and 1998;
  • We imprison only a slightly lower proportion of our population than Russia, which has the highest rate in the world (we’re #2);
  • Half of all inmates are African-American; one out of every three young African-American males is in prison, on probation, or on parole;
  • Between 1970 and 1996 the number of women in U.S. prisons grew from about 5,600 to almost 75,000, a thirteenfold increase; most of these women were arrested for nonviolent crimes.[2]

The U.S. bishops have called for reform.  Their analysis and proposals are available on the web.[3]  We have to be careful not to allow our thinking about prison and prisoners (when we think about them at all) to be influenced by scaremongering to win votes (a not-unknown political phenomenon).

We can also extend the meaning of the Holy Work to consider those who are imprisoned metaphorically in other places: the elderly isolated in nursing-homes (or their own homes); people imprisoned by their addictions or their fears or their ignorance; people imprisoned by others’ views of them (immigrants, non-English speakers, people with disabilities…)  The Holy Work of visiting the imprisoned can be as simple as a welcome that breaks down the wall of mistrust.  That, each of us has opportunities to do every day.  Until next week, peace

[1] Zusha Elinson, “Violent crime in California falls to lowest rate since 1967.”  Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2014: http://online.wsj.com/articles/violent-crime-in-california-falls-to-lowest-rate-since-1967-1412360177.

[2] Patrick McCormick, S.J. “Just punishment and America’s prison experiment.” Theological Studies, 2000.

[3] “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.” (2000) http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/criminal-justice-restorative-justice/crime-and-criminal-justice.cfm

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