Urging the Catholic Church to work for prison reform, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster stressed the need to ensure that parishes can welcome and aid former prisoners seeking to deepen their faith and return to society.
“We have a duty to support them, not segregate them. Without this welcome any redemption they found in prison and any motivation they have to reform will be wasted, along with all that they have to offer,” Cardinal Nichols said to a gathering of prison chaplains Sept. 6 at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham.
“One young prisoner, actually preparing for baptism as a Catholic, gestured to the knife scars and tattoos on his face and neck and poignantly asked his Catholic chaplain, ‘How can I walk through the door of a Church looking like this?’ His words challenge us to ensure that we can confidently say he would be welcomed in our own parish.”
The cardinal praised prison chaplains’ work and their commitment to endure stress and hardship to show compassion to those alienated from society.
“Through your vocation you enrich the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society in work that has been given a fresh highlight in this Year of Mercy,” he said.
A recent report from the bishops’ conference of England and Wales found that Catholics in prison are very clear about the importance of chaplains in deepening their faith and helping them take part in Mass.
“They testify that doing so brings them closer to God, helps them to cope during this intensely testing period of their lives, and strengthens their connections with the Catholic community, both inside and outside the prison walls,” the cardinal said. “An overwhelming majority of Catholics in our prisons are very clear that chaplains play a vital role in helping them to deepen understanding of their faith.”
He added that collaboration between Catholic and Muslim prison chaplains is “one of the most inspiring demonstrations of partnership between the faith communities in our land.”
Cardinal Nichols reflected on the role of prisons and prisoners. He said that prisoners have individual responsibility to work for their rehabilitation
The cardinal also reflected on the failings of the prison system and society. Communities have a responsibility to ensure humane conditions in prison. Communities must also help those who have left prison and ensure that they are not stigmatized and rejected in a way that leads them back to crime and gangs.
He recounted the story of a prisoner who had learned to read and write better in prison and was chosen to read at the cardinal’s Advent Mass. Although the prisoner’s improvements had seemed hopeful, after a few months out of prison, he had rejoined his gang and died in “a pointless feud.”
“This tragedy underscored for me that, despite the efforts of all those working in our prisons and the difference that you make in many cases, the challenges to be confronted are many and complex,” he said.
Cardinal Nichols strongly denounced inhumane conditions in prisons.
“We think of ourselves as a civilized society, yet we know that in practice our treatment of prisoners often falls short of acceptable standards,” he said. “The care of prisoners, therefore, is a measure of the maturity of a society.”
He said society must act wisely to ensure that the needs of prisoners are met while insisting that they face the consequences of their criminal acts.
“Depriving someone of their liberty is a legitimate punishment. Yet no one can reasonably claim that the conditions in which we hold many prisoners are acceptable,” he said. While there are examples of well-run prisons in England and Wales, “it is a stain on our society that in the twenty-first century some prisons are still characterized by rubbish, damp, dirt, graffiti, and unhygienic facilities.”
He noted an inspector general’s report that prisoners often must eat their meals in their cell right next to an unscreened toilet.
“There is surely no justification for treating our brothers and sisters with such disregard,” he added. “A society which shows such contempt for a prisoner’s dignity truly undermines that prisoner’s chance of reforming their lives.”
He said the Catholic Church has a “vital part” to play in prison reform, given Jesus Christ’s mandate for Christians to visit and care for the imprisoned in Matthew 25. Among the reforms he advocated were efforts to ban mandatory disclosure of criminal sentences on initial job applications. Critics say the job application process screens out newly released prisoners and ensures many will never find sufficient employment, no matter whether they have reformed and educated themselves in prison.
Other failings in the prison system include the growing number of prisons who suffer harm, including self-inflicted harm, suicide, and murder.
“People in prison have done wrong. In many cases they have caused great suffering. Yet they still have the same dignity as every other man, woman or child,” the cardinal said.
He called for better mental health support and safer staffing levels, describing these as “urgent necessities.”
Any prisoner who returns to crime, or suffers addiction, unemployment or violence upon release, shows that the prison system is not working, the cardinal said.
“The Year of Mercy presents an opportunity and a challenge to re-energize our commitment to all whose lives are touched by prison,” the cardinal said.