22 January 2009

Prison Ministry - Suggestions for Action

The following is taken from the USCCB document, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice published in 2000. The appendix offers some suggestions on how to get active in prison ministry. The full document can be read at the USCCB website.

Suggestions for Action

The Catholic community has a tremendous history and capacity to help shape the issues of crime and criminal justice in the United States. Few organizations do more to prevent crime or heal its effects than the Catholic Church. Through many committed individual Catholics, prison ministry programs, parish outreach efforts, Catholic schools, diocesan peace and justice offices, community organizing projects, ex-offender reintegration programs, family counseling, drug and alcohol recovery programs, and charitable services to low-income people, the Catholic community responds to criminal justice concerns in a wide variety of ways. But we can do more.

This list of suggestions and resources is by no means exhaustive. Rather, it is intended to give individual Catholics, parishes, and dioceses some directions about programs and policies that reflect Catholic principles and values as we work together to implement this statement.

Teach Right from Wrong, Respect for Life, Forgiveness and Mercy
Parish priests, Catholic educators, and a wide variety of other efforts assist parents in teaching children right from wrong, respect for life, and forgiveness and mercy. Catholics also can have an impact in their own families and communities, when they teach by example and demonstrate these values by their actions.

Respect for human life—the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching—is a key to our work in criminal justice because we believe that the current culture of violence contributes to crime. We bishops urge Catholics to work against the violence of abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. We call for renewed efforts to abolish the death penalty. In addition, Catholics must work to ensure that everyone has access to those things that enhance life and dignity: decent housing, a job with a living wage, and health care. Catholics can
  • Promote a culture of life, alternatives to abortion by supporting adoption, foster care, and homes for unwed mothers
  • Read the U.S. Catholic Bishops statement, Renewing the Mind of the Media: A Statement on Overcoming Exploitation of Sex and Violence in Communications, which offers ways for Catholics to help curtail the use of violent and sexual content on radio and television and in print media and movies.
  • Support local programs that offer young people character-building opportunities and divert their energy to positive endeavors: athletics, Scouting, Church-sponsored after-school and evening social programs, and tutoring and literacy programs.
  • Encourage schools, churches, and neighborhood centers to teach conflict resolution, especially to children, as a way to reduce tension and violence.
  • Work to ensure that jobs, affordable housing, and accessibility to health services are available in your community.
  • Oppose attempts to impose or expand the death penalty in your state. In states that sanction the death penalty, join organizations that work to curtail its use (e.g., prohibit the execution of teenagers or the mentally ill) and those that call for its abolition.
  • Invite parish discussions for collaborative responses to the death penalty—such as public prayer vigils, tolling of church bells, penitential practices—when an execution is scheduled.

Stand With Victims and Their Families

The Church's witness to victims and their families must be more focused and comprehensive. We must see victims as people with many needs, not just those satisfied by the criminal justice system. The government's role is to ensure that the offender is punished, that reparations are made and that the community feels safe, but victims have spiritual, physical and emotional needs that are often best met by family, friends, neighbors and the community of faith. The Church should pursue policies and programs that respond to all the needs of victims of crime, just as we do to victims of natural disasters. To support victims, Catholics can

  • Learn more about the types of programs that are available for victims at the local level. For example, many states offer reparations for victims of violence, and some local churches have developed effective victim ministry programs.
  • Catholic parishes can work to discover the gaps in meeting victims' needs and explore ways to fill those gaps.
  • Support local programs that work to train people for victim ministry. Where these programs don't exist, join with other churches, civic, and community groups to form networks of people ready to respond to the material, emotional, and spiritual needs of victims.
  • Promote victim ministry programs at the parish level with the goal of having a consistent and comprehensive presence to those affected by crime. Parishioners can bring meals, secure broken windows and doors, and offer emotional support to victims of break-ins or violent encounters. Pastoral ministers should become familiar with services available through Catholic Charities and other counseling agencies and victims' programs and help connect victims with these services.

Reach Out to Offenders and Their Families

Just as victims of crime have a variety of needs, so do offenders and their families, especially the children of offenders. The Church should not only have a strong presence in prisons and jails—where we Catholics work to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of inmates—but should make special efforts to assist children left without the support of their incarcerated parent. Catholics can

  • Promote prison ministry programs at the diocesan and parish levels. We affirm the dedicated deacons and priests who carry forward this mission. We welcome lay ministers—both volunteer and professional—who are indispensable to this ministry.
  • Reach out to the families of inmates. Parishes can mentor families caught up in the cycle of crime, assist with transportation for prison visitations, offer material assistance when income is lost because of the incarceration, and provide counseling (often through Catholic Charities agencies).
  • Promote prisoner re-entry programs. Often the most difficult time for a former inmate is trying to reintegrate into his or her community. Some parishes have made available church property for transition houses while others assist in providing the spiritual, material, and emotional assistance that the probation and parole system rarely provides.

Build Community

Catholics believe that life in community enables all people to be fully human. We value strong, intact families and healthy neighborhoods. Crime, especially violent crime, often destroys families and communities and can make everyone feel less safe or secure. Catholics are encouraged to promote all of those things that support family life and lift up the community. Catholics can

  • Promote the variety of efforts in our neighborhoods that encourage active participation in the life of the community. Neighborhood watch groups, community-oriented policing, and partnerships between law enforcement and the local faith community are all part of the web of relationships that create safe and secure communities.
  • Promote the work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in your local diocese by giving generously to the annual collection. Grants from the collection are given back to communities to support organizing projects which bring people together to work on community needs, including crime and criminal justice.
  • Support programs in your community that engage youth and build their self-esteem. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister, mentor children at risk, and support school or community center programs that offer diversions for children between the hours of 3:00 and 8:00 p.m. when parental supervision is often inadequate.
    Discover new ways of dealing with offenders. Models such as Boston's "Ten-Point Coalition" can be replicated in many communities. These programs encourage partnerships between local churches and police and divert troubled teens from a life of crime to becoming productive citizens.

Advocate Policies That Offer Real Alternatives to Crime

Charitable works go a long way toward solving some of the problems of crime and victimization. Yet efforts to change policies and enhance programs that affect the treatment of victims and offenders, and those that help restore communities affected by crime are also essential to a new approach to crime and criminal justice. We Catholics must bring our beliefs and values to the attention of those in positions to influence policy. State Catholic conferences, diocesan offices (e.g., pro-life, education, and social concerns), and parish legislative advocacy networks can help individual Catholics to support public policies that reflect our values. Catholics can

  • Learn about federal, state, and local policies that affect how criminal justice is administered.
  • Join diocesan legislative networks to ensure that the Catholic voice is heard on crime and criminal justice issues. If your diocese does not have a legislative network, call your state Catholic conference or visit the website for the U.S. bishops' Office of Domestic Policy at www.usccb.org/sdwp for actions you can take at the national level.
  • Talk to prosecutors, judges, chiefs of police, and others involved in the criminal justice system and seek their views on how the system can better reflect our values and priorities.

Organize Diocesan Consultations

A primary role for the Church is to gather people of different viewpoints and help them to reach common ground. Out of this dialogue can come greater appreciation for diverse perspectives, credibility for the Church's involvement in the issues, and ultimately a change of heart and mind by those who can impact the criminal justice system so that it more fully reflects gospel values.

  • We bishops encourage dioceses to invite jail and prison chaplains, victims of crime, corrections officers, judges, wardens, former inmates, police, parole and probation officers, substance abuse and family counselors, community leaders and others to listening sessions. The purpose of these sessions would be to gain a better appreciation of all the parties affected by crime and involved in the criminal justice system, to seek common ground on local approaches to crime, to collaborate more easily in areas of mutual concern, and to build community among all these people of goodwill who are trying to make society safer and life more complete.
  • State Catholic conferences may convene policy makers, ministers, and other interested parties at the state level and engage in a similar process of listening, learning, and planning in an effort to make the criminal justice system more reflective of justice and mercy, responsibility and rehabilitation, restoration and wholeness.

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