“I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt 25:36)
I’ve never been inside a prison. The closest I have come to inmates is driving past a highway work crew. Too often, I have failed to give much thought, much less show compassion, to people in prison. Yet Jesus did not overlook the imprisoned when he named the acts of compassion which determine how we will be judged.
I have known Catholics — priests, deacons, and lay ministers — who visit prisoners as chaplains and faith leaders. I have learned how their ministry and volunteer service have profoundly changed them because they have encountered the humanity of people some describe as “animals.”
I wonder if I weren’t working in a parish how often the plight of our country’s prisoners would cross my mind. Rarely, if ever, I’m afraid. Unless incarceration touches us personally, we are not motivated to consider the humanity of men and women behind bars.
Indeed, if we don’t encounter prisoners or know those who do, we are at risk of overlooking, even condoning, a grave injustice perpetrated against our fellow Americans.
The U.S. prison system is in dire need of reform. According to the “World Prison Population List”, edited by Roy Walmsley, over 2.2 million Americans were incarcerated when the most recent census was published in October 2015. From this same source, the United States has the second highest rate (698) of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population.
According to a Newsweek report, “18 Facts You Need to Know about U.S. Prisons” by Julie Borowski (February 2015), the United States has more jails than colleges. Other facts in the same report: The prison population in the United States has grown by 400 percent since the 1980s, as a result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses.
And these drug sentences are clearly biased against African Americans.
According to an NAACP fact sheet, “Drug Sentencing Disparities” (Sentencing Project) (www.naacp.org/ pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet):
- 5 times as many whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites
- African Americans represent 12 percent of the total population of drug users, but 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59 percent of those in state prison for a drug offense.
- African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).
- The “war on drugs” has been a war on our own people, the majority of whom are already struggling.
In addition to these disturbing statistics, we have humanitarian concerns about prison overcrowding, the misuse of solitary confinement, the cruelty of death row, abuses occurring in juvenile delinquent centers and immigration detention centers, and the disturbing trend of relying on “for-profit” prisons to house our growing population of prisoners.
As Christians, commanded by Christ to visit the prisoner, whom he identified with himself, we have an obligation to seek reform of our criminal justice system and become aware of the human face of those behind bars.