Prisons need to help heal criminals, not just punish
By Enedelia J. Obregón
The U.S. criminal justice system is so dysfunctional that it must be dismantled and rebuilt to focus on healing rather than punishment. That was the message that Father Dave T. Link brought to the Texas Criminal Justice Ministry Conference, which was part of the Living the Good News Conference sponsored by the Diocese of Austin Secretariat of Justice and Charity.
Father Link, 78, is assistant director of religious services for the Northern Region of the Indiana Department of Corrections. He said that incarceration isn’t working because society is not dealing with the underlying problems that cause people to commit crimes.
“Most people are not bad,” he said. “They are good people who made terrible life decisions. They didn’t fall into the cracks; they were born in the cracks.”
Father Link, who is dean emeritus of the Notre Dame Law School and a former prosecutor before becoming a priest at 71 following his wife’s death, said society needs to recognize the “intolerable backgrounds” in which most of the incarcerated grew up. Many of the incarcerated also struggle with addiction, a “means of escaping a bad situation.”
Deacon Doots Dufour is director of the diocesan Criminal Justice Ministry and chair of the Texas Catholic Correctional Ministers. He said poverty plays a key role in the lives of the incarcerated.
“Poverty is the leading driver in the criminal justice system,” he said. “The other is the breakdown of traditional families.”
Those two factors snowball into other problems. Eighty to 90 percent of prison inmates are school dropouts, have been abused or neglected as children, are addicted or abuse drugs and alcohol, were reared in fatherless households and have no spiritual life.
Race is also a major factor. Studies have shown blacks are five times more likely to be incarcerated for the same offense as whites. As of 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Justice estimated there were more than 846,000 black men in prison, making up 40.2 percent of inmates. According to U.S. Census estimates for 2013, blacks make up 13.2 percent of the population.
In Texas, statistics show the same pattern. According to a Justice Policy Institute 2002 report, Blacks and Latinos combined make up 40 percent of the state population but 70 percent of incarcerated.
Father Link shared stories of the men at the maximum security prison where he serves as chaplain, reminding the ministry volunteers that it is important to put a human face on the people who are incarcerated.
He lifted a chess set and some pieces made by an inmate from popsicle sticks.
He talked about “Tommy,” who became the man of the house at age 4 when his father left him and his sister and mother. By age 6, Tommy carried a gun and a knife. He believed only two people in the world loved him –– his mother and sister. When his mom notified him she was dying of cancer, he promised her he’d turn his life around. Within a week his mother was dead as was his sister, who overdosed on drugs.
With the constant presence of a prison ministry volunteer, Tommy did turn his life around. He said the most important thing volunteers can do is be present and treat offenders as human beings who are made in God’s image.
“You might think Tommy is unique, but there are many like Tommy in prison,” Father Link said. “It is the best thing you will ever do.”
Deacon Dufour said studies have shown that spiritual ministries do make a difference in inmate behavior and reduce recidivism rates when inmates leave prison.
A two-year study of Florida prisons where the Kairos ministry program is used showed a 16 percent recidivism rate for those who attended versus 28 percent for those who did not attend. Those who also attended the follow-up Kairos program had an even lower recidivism rate of 9 percent.
Chapel attendance also makes a difference. The delinquency –– or bad behavior –– of the incarcerated is 9 percent for those who do not attend chapel activities. It falls to 6 percent for those who attend one to three times a month, 4 percent for those attending four to nine times a month and 2 percent for those attending 10 or more times.
Father Link told volunteers that the Lord is present in prison.
“God is in their cells,” he said. “He’s not outside. There is no cell strong enough to keep out our Lord.”
Karla Williams from Holy Family Parish in Copperas Cove was one of the prison ministry volunteers who attended the workshop. She got involved two years ago after attending a presentation by Sister Helen Prejean, one of the leading anti-death penalty advocates and author of “Dead Man Walking.”
“She told us to pray for the offenders and the victims,” she said. “I started attending the St. Dismus ministry meeting and I got hooked.”
Deacon Dufour said prison ministry is not an easy ministry. The inmates may not show immediate gratitude since many have anti-social attitudes and low self-control due to the circumstances of their upbringing.
A must do
Father Link said people often ask, “What can we do?”
“That’s the wrong quote,” he said. “We need to ask, ‘What must we do?’ It’s not an option.”
Many of those inmates will leave prison and return to their home communities, he noted. A 2013 report from the Department of Justice showed that 17 percent of offenders in prison are there for non-violent drug offenses and 18 percent for property offenses.
That is where parishes can get involved in helping them find jobs and helping the families of the former inmates.
Having employment is a huge factor in preventing former inmates from becoming repeat offenders, Deacon Dufour said.
- What really needs to be done, Father Link said, is a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system. He offers a solution, which he calls the Crime Peace Plan.
- Change the goal of the system from punishment to healing.
- Change the system from adversarial to collaborative
- Include remedy recommendations in police investigations.
- Appoint rather than elect prosecutors.
- Oblige all lawyers to engage in criminal defense as a condition of practice.
- Establish a special Code of Ethics for prosecution and criminal defense.
- Establish an accurate and uniform definition of crime.
- Establish flexible and consistent standards of sentencing.
- Convert jails and prisons to intensive care units.
- Have sentence modification determinations made by people who know the present behavior of the incarcerated and the nature of the receiving community.
- Provide the possibility of expunging criminal records.
- Provide tax incentives for employers who hire recovering ex-prisoners.
Father Dave T. Link is the subject of a book published in 2013 by Maura Poston Zagrans titled “Camerado, I Give You My Hand: How a Powerful Lawyer-Turned-Priest is Changing the Lives of Men Behind Bars.”
For more information about Prison Ministry in the Austin Diocese, contact Deacon Dufour at (512) 949-2462 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.