Photo by Tyler Rutherford on Unsplash
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Prison reform and COVID-19

Quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us into involuntary confinement and isolation. The painful experience reminded us that humans are social animals who long to be free — free to move about, associate, make choices and form bonds. For the two million Americans who are currently incarcerated, quarantine merely extended the punitive logic that governs life in prison. To be held involuntarily in a harmful environment is the norm for these neighbors of ours who are locked away, out of sight and mind.

Photo by Tyler Rutherford on Unsplash
Photo by Tyler Rutherford on Unsplash

The pandemic brought prison conditions to public attention as news of the virus’ rapid spread within overcrowded carceral settings received coverage in mainstream media. I heard firsthand of the indignities suffered by clients whom I served through Kolbe House Jail Ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago. They reported inadequate health care, lack of privacy and time outdoors for recreation, curtailed family visits and the suspension of all programming, including religious services. Concern for their safety made me feel the urgency of ending mass incarceration.

Can we turn the dire straits of the past two years into a platform for action? Bill Keller’s new book, “What’s Prison For? Punishment and Rehabilitation in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” provides a launching pad and trajectory for reform. Keller, founding editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project and former correspondent, editor and op-ed columnist of 30 years for The New York Times, has written a book that is concise, accessible and designed to bring readers up to speed on the legal and social history behind the rise of mass incarceration in order to re-enliven national scrutiny of the U.S. carceral system

What's Prison For? book cover

Americans across the political spectrum agree that our system is broken — a waste of lives and money. Yet we lack consensus on how to move forward. Keller asks, “Can we use our prisons to improve the chances that those caught in the criminal justice system emerge — and upward of 95% of them will emerge — with some hope of productive lives?”

Studies in neuroscience and social psychology call into question the rationale that prisons serve an effective means of ensuring public safety. To borrow a phrase from Dorothy Day, it is wiser by far to build a society in which it is easier for people to be good. In such a society, the goal of prisons would be rehabilitative — to help people become better neighbors. Rehabilitation requires acknowledging that people who harm others have themselves suffered harm. They are often burdened by poverty, trauma, mental illness and/or addiction. The surest way to curtail the cycle of violence is to provide treatment and opportunities for a better future.

Prison reform is a matter of both racial and economic justice. The impact of mass incarceration falls heaviest on poor communities and disproportionately impacts people of color. Pope Francis critiques this racial bias and calls the Church to work for prison reform in his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. As a white Catholic, however, I rarely hear homilies that name ending mass incarceration as a pro-life and pro-family issue. It certainly is both. If the Church is serious about practicing its own social teaching, then we must take a stand against mass incarceration and invest in the work of restorative justice and rehabilitation.

Sister Annie Killian and Deacon Pablo Perez
Sister Annie Killian with Deacon Pablo Perez, associate director of Kolbe House Jail Ministry in Chicago

Rehabilitative programming in prison can help folks emerge from incarceration more skilled, better educated, experienced in counseling their peers and enabled to support their families. Students I’ve taught through college-in-prison initiatives have shared that pursuing a degree restores their dignity and self-esteem. It helps some re-establish relationships with their families.

If we truly believe in a God who sets captives free, then we are bound to attend to calls for prison abolition.

No matter how therapeutic in-prison programs are, however, Americans must ask whether our society is well-served by removing folks who are impoverished, addicted and dealing with mental health issues from their communities. Is it just to children of the incarcerated to deprive them of their parents? These are the concerns raised by the prison abolition movement. Abolitionists argue that crime is merely a by-product of deeply-rooted social inequities: poverty and lack of access to employment, housing and health care. Rather than pour money into the carceral system we should, instead, invest in providing resources for communities at the socioeconomic margins.

Many deem the goal of prison abolition unrealistic. Most Americans aren’t ready to do away with prison entirely, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they do more harm than good. As Christians, we should be wary of political stances that would sacrifice the potential for human flourishing in the name of practicality. After all, we profess belief in the resurrection of the dead — the ultimate impossibility. We know that our ways are not God’s ways, especially when it comes to matters of justice and mercy. If we truly believe in a God who sets captives free, then we are bound to attend to calls for prison abolition. They impel us to imagine a future in which we won’t need prisons to feel safe.

“What’s Prison For?” aims to reignite the movement for prison reform that stalled during the pandemic shutdown. It also points to ways that people of faith can make a difference in the short-term through local and state-level experiments in rehabilitation. Mass incarceration is rightly named a humanitarian crisis. It demands that we be good neighbors to those trapped in the system so that they can return to their families and communities, equipped to become better neighbors in turn.


Annie Killian, Dominican Sister of Peace

Annie Killian is a temporary-professed Dominican Sister of Peace. She ministers in public humanities and community engagement at the University of Notre Dame.

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