Without a doubt, Barack Obama’s recent editorial in the Washington Post calls forth the best of America: the chance for redemption. Obama explains his recent decision to end solitary confinement for minors in the federal prison system. He lays out a well-researched, rational case for his reform: the isolation tactic causes lasting psychological damage, especially among the young. Further, solitary confinement is no longer employed just as a last resort, but it has become increasingly used in recent decades. If it were successful at deterring future violence, that would be great. But its overuse has not kept us safe; it actually puts the rest of us at greater risk when mentally-scarred prisoners are released, and cannot reintegrate into society.
But what really drew my attention was where Obama looked for support. He writes, “In America, we believe in redemption. We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that ‘every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.’” Here the President moves beyond just the question of whether solitary confinement is bad policy (spoiler alert: it is). He points now to a question that is even more important for Americans to consider: who are we, as a nation, going to be? It takes more than just nice words to become a nation of redemption. Our actions must match.
How we run our prisons—and I don’t doubt that we will continue to need some—must match the moral demands of our rhetoric. We need prison reform not just for the good of the men and women incarcerated; we also need it to preserve our collective American soul, the integrity of which relies on our commitment to just and reasonable conduct, even for prisoners.
We like to speak of America as a land of the free. Yet we have the world’s highest incarceration rate. Until we have reformed our prison industrial complex, we will remain a people who profit from the incarceration of others. Until we have ceased to treat prisoners as throw-away people, we will have to fear being tossed out ourselves. Until we have done all we can to overcome criminals’ misdeeds with our goodness—providing opportunities and means of correction that demonstrably correct prisoners’ behavior—until then, we will not yet be a people of redemption. Prisoners’ chances of redemption lies in our behavior as much as theirs. Who are we, as a nation, going to be?
After many years of writing regularly for TJP, Fr. Chris Schroeder, SJ is hanging up the spurs to focus primarily on his pastoral work as a newly ordained priest in Kansas City. We wish him well and thank him for his passion for justice, insights, and humor over the years. – The Editors
Title Image, “prisoner of myself” by wolfgangfoto is available on Flickr here.
Incarceration rates chart available online here.