The Catholic Social Justice Statement for 2011-2012 was launched in Sydney yesterday.
In the Statement, the Catholic Bishops of Australia urge all Australians to think about the conditions in our prisons, and to ask who are most likely to find themselves there and why.
The Statement, titled Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the justice system, points out that between 1984 and 2008, while rates of crime either stayed steady or fell, the number of Australians in prison per 100,000 people almost doubled. The majority of Australian prisoners come from the most disadvantaged sections of the community: the underprivileged, those suffering from mental illness, and especially Indigenous people, who make up about 2.3 per cent of the Australian population but about a quarter of those in prison. The incarceration rate for young Indigenous people is even higher.
The disproportionate growth in imprisonment has come about in part because of repeated law-and-order election campaigns and sensationalist reporting, which encourage the idea that crime is out of control.
Certainly there will always be a need for prisons, but it is time for Australians to ask what they expect from their prison systems. Is jail simply somewhere to warehouse wrongdoers until they have served their sentences, or can it be a place where inmates learn to become responsible members of the wider society? How can we support those who have committed no crime but suffer terribly because their loved ones are incarcerated? This is an issue that especially affects children with a parent who has been imprisoned.
And what can we do to support those who have paid their debt to society but must overcome obstacles to finding work, a place to live and a place in our community?
The Statement celebrates the work of chaplains and all who work to bring hope and support to prisoners.
Jesus Christ never neglected outcasts and criminals – in fact, he sought them out to bring them his message of salvation and redemption. Inspired by the message and ministry of Jesus, the bishops present us with five challenges: to confront fear campaigns about law and order; to address the social factors that contribute to crime; to maintain the dignity of prisoners; to help prisoners after release; and to seek practical alternatives to imprisonment.
No crime can diminish the fact that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. In our parishes and our communities, let us consider how we can make a difference for those in prison and seeking bridges to a new life.
The Statement and related resources is available at http://www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au/