I recently responded on a Facebook page and wanted to post it here. This is with regards to Pope Francis’ recent approval of changing the Catechism’s wording on the death penalty, and goes the next step toward truly addressing the dignity of individuals.

The issue is the system itself: we need to revamp America’s prison system. I can’t even address what goes on in developing countries where I don’t think there are enough safeguards to protect citizens by housing murderers for life. But in America, there have been recent cases with overcrowded prisons where inmates given a life sentence have been released. There were over 1000 federal inmates released during the last administration alone. Once on the outside, some of them go on to commit other crimes, thus further endangering the public. This is unacceptable if we regard the innocent worthy of protection.

And then the safety of the other inmates and guards needs to be addressed. Under the current system, they are not safeguarded very well and there are murders that go on within the prison system by convicted murderers. If we believe in the dignity of all, the safety of other inmates and guards needs to be considered.

Finally, I am not in favor of country club settings in prisons. I recently read an account of an inmate serving a life sentence. In addition to three meals (which many of the poor in our country do not enjoy), he had color TV, a library at his disposal, and an exercise yard where he played basketball. In fact, he alluded that some prisoners commit crimes for that very reason…it is comfortable to live in jail.

With all this in mind, prisoners need to have two things happen that would align with showing we believe in their dignity.

First, they need to be put to work. Sitting around all day watching TV, or reading books is not exactly a punishment or dignified. It is promoting laziness, not dignity. Some type of productive labor should be required of all. Whether it is intensely physical, or menial day-to-day tasks, work is good for the soul. A job well done can help one who has strayed to rediscover self-esteem. There is dignity in work.

But second, and most importantly, prison should not simply be punitive. In addition to forced labor of some sort, there needs to be a true movement towards rehabilitation. There are other countries around the world with rehabilitation models, and they result in much lower recidivism. Norway, Singapore and Japan come to mind. Don’t we want those who have not committed capital crimes to be able to be re-introduced into society as productive citizens? Unless one is a hermit, we interact together. The goal is to interact well. There is dignity in being a member not just of humanity, but of society.

If we are trying to support the dignity of the human being, these two things would go far in establishing the prisoner’s idea that he has dignity. It’s OK for us to say we believe in the dignity of the person and we don’t want to exact a death penalty upon him. But does that person himself believe that he has dignity? If he were to be able to come to terms with his own dignity, he could repent of wrongdoings and be productive.

I guess what I’m saying is that changing the Catechism falls way short of what needs to be done for those who commit crimes, especially capital crimes, if we want to move towards promoting dignity. If all we are going to do is house somebody for the rest of his life after he commits a murder (or shorter sentences for lesser crimes) but don’t address what lies within the heart of that person, then we have really done nothing but provide a flop house for him. Ultimately, as Christian’s we should seek to heal the soul, not focus just on the temporal issues. Self-worth goes far in helping a person find the ultimate purpose of all mankind: to know love and serve God.

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