Can society effectively incarcerate violent criminals, and protect innocent people from them? Pope St. John Paul II stated that it can, and that while the Church’s official teaching on the death penalty is that the state has the right to take life in order to protect society, I would argue that this is no longer practically necessary in the modern world, with the incarceration methods and technological advances available. “No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so” (USCCB, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death).
Is American society in 2017 protected from crime using modern incarceration methods? One can argue that it is not. Organized crime and gang affiliated criminals are still able to inflict violence upon communities and the innocent even from behind bars. Corrupt guards and visitors bearing contraband and messages in and out of prisons have resulted in drugs being brought into prisons, violent crimes being carried out on the streets, innocent family members and children being killed in retaliation, and in criminals continuing to instill fear and obedience in communities even while in prison.
If a prisoner is serving a life sentence, what is the deterrent to committing further crimes? Is the death penalty necessary for those criminals who continue to hurt people from their cells?
Visitors must be more carefully vetted, and objects and clothing transported in and out of prison more thoroughly examined for contraband. Violations, even minor ones, must result in the visitor being banned from the prison and possible criminally prosecuted. A prisoner’s right to visitors can be curtailed if illegal activities are discovered. However, instructions given to others in person or on the phone will be nearly impossible to prevent, even with monitoring. Contact with the outside will always be prone to error, but it can be minimized with a higher staff to prisoner ratio.
Anthony Gangi, a correctional employee for 13 years and columnist for correctionsone.com, states that “Rehabilitation is an art painted on a canvas that was provided by Correctional Officers.” A prison guard at the Georgia Department of Corrections has a salary range from about $31,000 to $34,000, according to a job posting on Indeed.com. The money to be made from assisting prisoners and their cohorts on the outside can be tempting and increase income exponentially. Overworking is a condition of our economic climate, but it isn’t fair to prison employees to make them responsible for more work than can humanly be done, especially when their work consists of maintaining control and a positive example for incarcerated prisoners. Mental health care for employees is also critical, to help them deal with the stresses and dangers inherent in their daily lives, and to give them the tools needed to remain strong in the face of coercion by manipulative criminals.
While human life can never be reduced to a price tag, it is more expensive to execute a prisoner than to have that same person spend life in prison. According to nbcrightnow.com, it is estimated to be about $400,000 less expensive per prisoner. Costs of attorneys, appeals, and increased security needs on death row make it more financially viable to repeal the death penalty. The money saved from executing prisoners can protect the public through hiring of more correctional officers, and providing them with continuing education and support, as well as vocational, educational, religious, and other rehabilitative efforts for prisoners.
Conditions in prisons must be improved and reformed so that men and women are safe from themselves and each other, living in conditions of humanity and dignity. “…the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil” (Pope St. John Paul II Papal Mass, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999). It is unacceptable in a Christian society promising the freedoms and inalienable rights that the USA does that prisoners are allowed to act like wild beasts, preying on each other, raping, fighting, killing, and revenging themselves upon each other. Order must be returned. It is unacceptable that prisoners feel it necessary to join prison gangs, segregated by race, in order to be protected from savagery. Prison is and must be both a punishment of and a deterrent to crime, but not at the expense of the criminal’s human dignity.
Vocational programs, education, libraries, 12 step groups, and religious instruction and worship are present in prisons, but it is up to each individual to truly make use of them. Desire for atonement and change cannot be forced from the heart of an inmate, but people should pray for prisoners daily and call to the Holy Spirit to enter their hearts and effect conversion. Even lifers can find meaning to the remainder of their incarcerated years when shown the meaning of redemptive suffering and the means to atone for sins through Jesus Christ in His Catholic Church.
Mental health care needs for prisoners need to be addressed. CNN states that “Jails and prisons have become the mental asylums of the 21st Century.” The U.S. Department of Justice found in a 2006 study that over 50% of inmates have a mental illness as opposed to 11% for society as a whole, while only 1 in 3 inmates receive treatment. Addressing these grave needs can only help prevent crime and help criminals to heal and make amends for their offenses. Jail should not be a de facto psychiatric hospital. Interventions are needed to provide support for addicts and the mentally ill at the courtroom level, but also before crimes have even been committed. While social programs, education, and mentoring provide desperately needed help for America’s disenfranchised youth, the lack of a family and lack of love is at the heart of crime. People need stability, structure, discipline, and unconditional love from childhood and they aren’t getting it. Everything society can do to strengthen families prevents crime and saves lives and souls. America has the physical and practical means to do this-do we have the will to do it?
Through prayer, rehabilitative efforts, meaningful support for correctional officers, mental health treatment, and stable families, Americans will have the means to prevent violent crime from happening within prisons, and will not need the death penalty to keep citizens safe.