By Edgardo Farias
Chaplaincy is a specialized ministry in a secular institution setting. Most people have heard of police chaplains and prison chaplains but never heard of court chaplains. If the police, courts, and corrections are the three components of the criminal justice system, why have we not seen the need for court chaplains? Could a criminal justice chaplaincy be the bridge and invitation for a profound reflection on the human condition and social problems?
Such a system could be a new paradigm for reform of a criminal system that is in crisis and obsolete. It is a human degradation for the offenders, a mystery for the victims, a scandal for the taxpayers. Police, court and correctional agencies are increasingly unfamiliar with the importance of spiritual care that enables a person to move from dissonance and brokenness to wellbeing and wholeness.
As incarceration rates increase, inmates have fewer opportunities to participate in programs that could promote their well-being after release. The higher incarceration rates also have led to overpopulation. Many state and federal prisons operate at 100 percent or more of capacity. Overcrowding is devastating for health and behavior, as well as increasing the risk of suicide.
The effects of prison do not end with the inmate’s release; they extend beyond the former inmate to affect families, communities and the society. The criminal justice laws have created a large population whose access to public benefits, work, and the right to vote are limited by a criminal conviction. Those with criminal records frequently face lower employment rates and poorer incomes because they are denied work disproportionately. Many states deny business licenses due to a criminal background. Many are not eligible for public housing, student loans, food stamps, and other forms of assistance.
The Catholic Church in America does support an urgent reform to the U.S. immigration system, in response to the realities of separated families and the demands of work that force people to emigrate here. “We judge ourselves as a community of faith by the way we treat the most vulnerable among us,” U.S. and Mexican bishops stated in 2003. “The treatment of migrants challenges the consciences of elected officials, policymakers, enforcement officers, residents of border communities, and providers of legal aid and social services, many of whom share our Catholic faith.”
We are called to assume an attitude of welcome and mercy toward immigrants in the face of the challenging realities they may be experiencing: discrimination and labor exploitation, among others. For this reason, the pastoral care of migrants encourages the churches not to wait for immigrants to arrive at a specific meeting point because the place of action is in the squares, in the borders, in roads, in airports. Everyone in the pews must ask, “How do we get involved practically in humanizing penal and immigration policy?”
The teaching of the Church on the subject of punishment must consider the inherent problems of political power. The idea of justice tends to be identified with the existing social order, which means the Church cannot lose its capacity to look critically at the social reality. It is necessary to adopt a more critical perspective, in contact with real social problems, and in close dialogue with the human sciences.
Also, the lack of a permanent critical examination of our criminal policies has produced a dysfunctional penal system. Policies that focus on prison sentences exact enormous economic costs that have created the criminal justice industrial complex — and most recently, the immigration justice industrial complex. Without a doubt, the Church is being called to listen, with a new depth, to those words of the Lord, to act and demand penal reform and alternatives to imprisonment: “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
Deacon Edgardo Farias is director of detention ministry for the Archdiocese of Miami.