Last Sunday the Australian Catholic Bishops released their 2011-12 Social Justice Statement: "Building Bridges, Not Walls" It is a superbly written and produced document placing the spotlight on a public issue that has become an acute embarrassment in a civilised society like Australia — the rapidly escalating number of people in our prisons and the harm this is doing to the individuals incarcerated not to mention to wider society. Catholica Editor, Brian Coyne, has been reading the document and offers this overview of its contents.
Does locking up more and more people in prisons reduce crime?
If the Catholic Church in Australia is to ever mount a fight-back to its decline one of the places in which it might profitably begin the process from a head start position is its work in social justice advocacy. Social justice is not a contentious area of course where bishops have to watch their backs against attacks from the fundamentalist sectors in the Church, the temple police or the Vatican. It is one area of public life where we can still hear our religious leaders "speaking from the heart" — what they really believe — rather than mouthing public relations words that are designed principally not to get them into trouble with anybody within the institution.
The 2011-12 Social Justice Statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops follows in a long line of valuable statements the bishops have put out over the years commenting on important public issues. This new document deals with the massive problems we have in Australia because of recent political "law and order campaigns" that have ended up incarcerating a record number of people. As Bishop Christopher Saunders (chairperson of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council) writes in his introduction to the document, "Between 1984 and 2008, the number of Australians in prison per 100,000 people almost doubled."
We all might ask ourselves:
These Social Justice Statements produced by the Australian Bishops are not the sort of homilies a bishop might scribble out on the back of an envelope on a Saturday night for Sunday morning. A team of writers and researchers are employed to dig into the issues over a lengthy period of time before the bishops collectively "sign off" on the document which is issued in their collective name..
Sadly these days much of what is published by bishops and religious leaders tends to be greeted with a big yawn by society at large. So much of it is produced to satisfy internal Church politics rather than to reach out to the wider world. This document, indeed virtually all of the Social Justice Statements produced by the Australian Bishops, deserve to be read widely and taken seriously.
The causes of the present problem...
It is perhaps something of an irony that the reason we have a prison problem in Australia today is because of the agitation in the more fundamentalist sectors in society constantly calling for more "law and order" and longer prison sentences. Locking more people up does not necessarily reduce crime and it does lead to a massive cost imposition on society at large. Possibly worse than all of that though prisons can become a breeding ground for the very criminal mentalities that the "law and order fundamentalists" say they are most trying to eliminate in society.
This Social Justice Statement from the Australian Bishops cuts through all the "law and order" rhetoric so encouraged by talk-back shock jocks attempting to stir up the lizard brains in society to provide entertainment and increase their ratings. It presents a highly readable but statistically-backed analysis of the challenges facing society.
In the final analysis there will always be a small sector of society who can only be controlled by imprisonment. Such people need to be imprisoned simply for the protection of society at large. The argument comes down to what is the proportion of society who need to be handled in such a way? The Australian Bishops in this year's statement clearly argue that in Australia the proportion of people in prisons is now way outside what the proportion ought to be in a civilised society which Australia claims to be. The over-incarceration rate is now damaging to society at large, as well as harmful to the people who end up being imprisoned. Rather than achieving any fabulous results in rehabilitation the prison system becomes a breeding ground for a criminal and law-breaking mentality and people who have a chip on their shoulder in their attitudes to society at large and and to anybody attempting to live within the law.
The leadership problem...
The early part of the Bishops' Statement has its focus on outlining the problem in its statistical and political context trying to explain how Australian society has ended up in this situation. As the Statement argues:
The vast majority of Australians have no knowledge of prisons or prison life. Prisons have been described as ‘exotic institutions unknown to the social mainstream’ that prevent any knowledge of inmates’ circumstances. This ignorance is fertile ground for law and order campaigning.
Section Two of the Statement (from which the above quote is actually drawn) has its focus on Catholic Social Teaching and Thought and puts forward cogently argued principles that offer a counter to the emotion whipped up by the media and politicians for their base motives in the search for an audience or voting blocks that will give access to the Treasury portfolios in government.
Part Three of the Statement has its emphasis on the related questions of rehabilitation — turning prisons into an enhancing experience that returns a person as a productive member of wider society — and to the Jesus-inspired duty we all have to recognize that all people have rights and an entitlement to a measure of human dignity. Civilised society has moved on from the mentality that prevailed in earlier epochs where criminals were viewed as having no rights and could be transported to the other end of the earth with little prospect of ever seeing their families again for the most petty of crimes.
I commend this document to all readers of Catholica including those in countries external to Australia. The justice trends that are evident in Australia would seem to reflect a general trend in the Western world and the general lessons in this document may well have far wider application than only in this country.
Brian Coyne, 29 September 2011
What are your thoughts on this commentary?