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September 29, 2011
The 2011 Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the Justice System has been released by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.
The statement points to serious shortcomings in Australia’s prisons and justice systems. It questions why so many people are in jail, whether there are constructive alternatives to prison sentences and what is done to help prisoners lead productive lives when they return to the community. It challenges politicians and the community in general to search for more constructive ways forward.
Over 20 years ago the Christian Churches together addressed the same issue and it is the view of the Bishops that in the intervening time the levels of incarceration, the treatment of inmates, and the impoverished conditions of people returning to society have not improved. They urge us to become informed about conditions in our prisons, and to examine who in our Australian society are most likely to find themselves there.
In the years since the publication of the Churches’ document Prison: a Last Resort crime rates have either fallen or remained steady, yet the number of Australians in prison per 100,000 people has almost doubled. The majority of these prisoners come from the most disadvantaged groups in society: Indigenous people, the underprivileged, and those suffering mental illness. The disproportionate growth in imprisonment has come about in part because of repeated political law-and-order campaigns and sensationalist media reporting which creates the impression that crime is out of control. While there will always be a need for prisons to deal with serious offences, the Bishops believe that alternative measures ought be explored in the delivery of justice and better ways found to re-integrate former prisoners into community life as responsible fellow citizens.
Building Bridges presents us with five key challenges relating to the criminal justice system: the need to confront fear campaigns about increasing crime and law and order; to increase efforts to address the social factors that contribute to crime; to continue to search for and encourage realistic alternatives to incarceration; to ensure that, while in prison, the dignity of prisoners is maintained; and to provide more adequate and appropriate support for former prisoners as they return to society.
The Statement leaves us all, politicians and the community in general, with questions to ponder. What do we expect of our prison systems? Are prisons simply a place to warehouse wrongdoers until they have served their time? Can they be places where inmates learn to become responsible members of the wider society? How can we support those who have committed no crime but suffer because a loved one is incarcerated? What can we do to support those who have paid their debt to society but face obstacles in finding work, a place to live, and a place in the community?
Rather than demanding more walls, we are urged to build more bridges.
Prepared by Josephite Justice Office