19 August 2011
In their Social Justice Statement for 2011–2012, the Catholic Bishops of Australia urge all Australians to think about the conditions in their prisons, and to ask who are most likely to find themselves there and why.
The Statement, titled Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the justice system, points out that between 1984 and 2008, while rates of crime either stayed steady or fell, the number of Australians in prison per 100,000 people almost doubled.
The majority of Australian prisoners come from the most disadvantaged sections of the community: the underprivileged, those suffering from mental illness, and especially Indigenous people, who make up about 2.3 per cent of the Australian population but about a quarter of those in prison. The incarceration rate for young Indigenous people is even higher.
The letter, which is can be accessed via the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council website, acknowledges that there will always be a need for prisons, but suggests that it is time for Australians to ask what they expect from their prison systems. It asks if jail is simply somewhere to warehouse wrongdoers until they have served their sentences, or can it be a place where inmates learn to become responsible members of the wider society? It asks how those who have committed no crime but suffer terribly because their loved ones are incarcerated can be supported, pointing out that this is an issue that especially affects children with a parent who has been imprisoned.
Finally it asks what can be done to support those who have paid their debt to society but must overcome obstacles to finding work, a place to live and a place in the community.
A Restorative Justice approach which emphasizes repairing the harm caused by the actions of offenders is an alternative to punishment which has gained favour in many parts of the world . When victims, offenders and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational.
The Alternatives to Violence Project is an international training program that has also had success in bringing about positive change in inmates who have a history of violence.