Australian Bishop's Statement on Prisons

«The World Does not Need Walls but Bridges»

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SYDNEY, Australia, SEPT. 21, 2011 ( Here are two excerpts from the 2011-2010 Social Justice Statement published Sept. 14 by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Sept. 14. The statement is titled «Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the Justice System.»

The full statement can be found here:

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The Church’s teaching on crime and punishment

All of us are called to respect the human dignity of every person, including those who have committed serious crimes. State limitations on freedom always require justification. Punishment of offenders can help to preserve public order and safety, but it should also assist the rehabilitation of offenders and protect their human rights.

In 2007, a World Congress of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care took place in Rome, taking the theme «Discovering the face of Christ in every prisoner.» The Congress, echoing words of Pope John Paul II, said: «The world does not need walls but bridges.»

The chaplains stated: «We strongly advocate and work for justice that restores, heals and protects; a justice that makes the offenders accountable for what they have done; a justice that provides restitution to the victims who are most of the time ignored and forgotten by the current justice system; a justice that engages the community in facilitating the healing process, thus leading to the re-integration of the victim and the offender to the community.»

To protect the common good, the state has the right and also the duty to impose appropriate punishments for offences that are harmful to human rights and the fundamental norms of civil life. The Church emphasizes that this power should be entrusted to the courts without undue interference from politics.

The Church also emphasizes that just punishment should have a rehabilitative function: «On the one hand, encouraging the re-insertion of the condemned person into society; on the other, fostering a justice that reconciles, a justice capable of restoring harmony in social relationships disrupted by the criminal act committed.»

Pope Benedict XVI, addressing the 2007 Rome Congress, said: «Judicial and penal institutions must contribute to the rehabilitation of offenders, facilitating their transition from despair to hope … When conditions within jails and prisons are not conducive to the process of regaining a sense of worth and accepting its related duties, these institutions fail to achieve one of their essential ends.»

When we look at the conditions in Australia’s prisons in the light of the Church’s teaching, we have to ask if there is a proper balance between appropriate punishment and effective rehabilitation of offenders.


Maintaining the dignity of those in prison

Prison life is isolating and often brutal. In the words of one prisoner: «Ninety-eight per cent of the time it’s bone-numbing boredom … However there’s two per cent I would call bone-crushing terror … there have been times when I’ve been fearful for my life.»

In this environment, prison chaplains do heroic work, providing inmates with all-too-rare opportunities for personal reflection, the Sacraments and spiritual support. Often when lives and relationships break down, people can be most open to the presence of Christ.

Chaplains, the face of the Church for those most in need, spend hours with prisoners, some of whom, after many years, have come to the point of remorse and wonder how to forgive themselves or even if God can forgive them. The chaplains’ ministry reveals a central truth that there is more to even the most brutal offender than the crimes he or she has committed. Prisoners are deprived of their freedom but they must never be deprived of their human dignity. No civilized society can tolerate prisons being conducted as barbaric institutions. Former Queensland Supreme Court judge William Carter has denounced the culture of Australia’s prisons, saying: «Prison is a place where human beings are brutalized, sodomized and assaulted — but not corrected.»

Certain types of offenders can find themselves despised both by staff and fellow inmates, and are particularly subject to brutality in prison. However serious their crimes, we must remember that it is the state that is responsible for their punishment — not other prisoners.

Common experiences of prison life, such as overcrowding, fear of violence and unmet need, reveal how the institution is failing to rehabilitate. Prisons do not have the capacity to deal with the complex needs of people with addictions, mental illness, intellectual disabilities or conditions related to advanced age. Even for people without such problems, a period of incarceration can result in the loss of jobs, accumulation of debt, loss of accommodation, and homelessness upon release. Family breakdown is one of the most tragic consequences. For children, the repercussions can be terrible. Imprisonment of a parent means they are also exposed to prison life and, if the family is separated, to the possibility of having to live with strangers or enter the care of the state.

We are particularly concerned for women prisoners, the vast majority of whom are mothers, and around 80 per cent of whom are the sole providers for dependent children. Added to the pain of their sentence is the separation from their children. And often, the physical and psychological violence of prison replicates the violence many experienced in their own childhood. In very many cases these women should be receiving treatment for addiction or mental illness rather than being incarcerated. We acknowledge prison officers and other professionals who work under difficult circumstances to preserve the dignity of prisoners. We also recognize the faithfulness and resilience of families who support those in jail. Many travel great distances and even move to a new location, with all the upheaval that entails, in order to be with their loved ones.

All these people are struggling to meet an overwhelming need that broader society has failed to address. The issue of mental illness among the prison population is a case in point. But these are challenges not just for those working in the criminal justice system. We all share a responsibility to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters inside. Those who have been brutalized and denied proper care and rehabilitation in prison will one day return to our communities. What will be our response?

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