Visit the Prisoner

One of the ways we mark Lent is through almsgiving, which doesn’t just mean writing checks but engaging in all the Works of Mercy recommended by the Church. One of those that has never really appealed to me is “visiting the prisoner.” Maybe I’m wimpier or more worldly than most of you, but I’m daunted by the prospect of driving to my local correctional facility, walking through metal detectors, then sitting down in a cage across from someone duly convicted of possibly violent crimes. And anyway, doesn’t this guy deserve to be in here? I’m reminded, at this point, of all the trouble the well-meaning Catholic Lord Longford got into when his worthy mission to prisoners led him, via misguided compassion, to try and get the “penitent” serial killer Myra Hindley released from prison. But that’s another story.

If there were some sort of registry of innocent people wrongly convicted — maybe they could be given a different color cell — that would make this work of mercy more attractive. I guess I could do some research, and sort through the prisoner lists for folks convicted of victimless crimes where I think the legal punishment is disproportionate. I could visit one of those hundreds of thousands of Americans who languish in violent prisons for using illegal drugs — this in a country where partial-birth abortion is perfectly legal. (So much for the freedom of “choice” to do what one wants with one’s body.)

But then again, nearly every prisoner in America, in almost all our prisons, is in fact subject to cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Constitution, the natural law, and any decent human standard of justice. No, I’m not talking about the death penalty, a subject on which I’m indifferent. Sure, it has mighty symbolic importance, but it is so disproportionately applied to killers who had bad lawyers that it hardly upholds its central societal function: as a secular sacrament of public order, imposing on the worst of criminals the ultimate punishment, with the state acting on behalf of God as His agent of justice on earth. Does that really happen when some semi-retarded felon whose lawyer was drunk at the trial gets strapped to a table and dosed to death? I tell liberals who accuse “law and order” conservatives of being inconsistent when we object to abortion: “Okay, I have no problems in principle with the death penalty, as you have none with abortion. How about we swap? I’m happy to stop executing the guilty if you’ll agree to stop killing the innocent. Do we have a deal?” I have never yet found a taker.

No, I’m talking about cruel, unusual punishments administered at the hands of the state that leave their victims alive — though many might wish they weren’t. For instance, here is the legal penalty in the State of New Hampshire for stealing a car worth more than $1,000:

Up to 15 years of forcible rape in prison.

The punishment for growing one ounce of marijuana:

Up to 7 years of forcible rape in prison.

Criminals who commit forcible rape themselves can be sentenced to between 10 and 20 years of homosexual rape — which has a certain poetic justice to it, but still strikes me as disproportionate. Indeed, it’s hard for me to think of crimes that really deserve this kind of punishment, but maybe I’ve turned into a softy.


Or perhaps you think I’m being alarmist. I wish I were. According to Just Detention International:

Sexual assault behind bars is a widespread human rights crisis in prisons and jails across the U.S. According to the best available research, 20 percent of inmates in men’s prisons are sexually abused at some point during their incarceration. The rate for women’s facilities varies dramatically from one prison to another, with one in four inmates being victimized at the worst institutions.

In a 2008-2009 survey of prison and jail inmates across the country, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that 88,500 adult inmates had been sexually abused at their current facility in the previous year alone. In a separate survey, the BJS found that 12.1 percent — almost one in eight — of youth in juvenile detention reported being assaulted at their current facility in the prior year alone.

Unfortunately, the data provided by the BJS still represent only a fraction of the true number of detainees who are victimized, especially of those held in county jails. The number of admissions to local jails over the course of a year is approximately 17 times higher than the nation’s jail population on any given day, so the BJS surveyors were able to cover only a very small proportion of jail detainees over an entire year. (emphasis added)

As one prison rape victim testified before the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (August 19, 2005):

Sexual violence in prison consists not only in direct victimization, but also in the daily knowledge that it’s happening. It approaches legitimacy in the sense that it’s tolerated. Those who perpetuate these acts of violence often receive little or no punishment. To that extent alone, corrections officials render these acts acceptable.

These acts, let me remind you, are called by the Church one of the “sins that cry to Heaven for vengeance.” That is the Church’s term for voluntary sodomy — she hasn’t yet had the stomach to categorize violent prison rape.

Imagine if 88,500 prisoners were being murdered in jail each year. Or flogged by their jailors. There might be a serious reform wave in America, akin to the pro-life or abolitionist movement, demanding that these abuses be controlled. America’s prisons — already packed with a higher proportion of our population than any other country in the world, thanks to our failed war on drugs — have largely given up even trying to stem the prevalence of prison rape, essentially ceding the bodies of weaker, more vulnerable prisoners (many of them tax cheats, car thieves, pot smokers, or embezzlers) to the lust and aggression of the strong. And we wonder why prisons seem never to rehabilitate anyone — when our apathy and disdain has allowed them to degenerate to the lowest, grimmest level of primate behavior.


And what do we do? We joke about it. We chuckle grimly when TV detectives on Law and Order badger confessions out of (sometimes innocent) suspects with the prospect of “getting real close with your bunkmate,” or “becoming someone’s bitch.” We laugh good-naturedly when Saturday Night Live repeats its running “Scared Straight” sketch, which squeezes forcible sodomy for all the laughs it is worth. Instead of Eddie Murphy as Gumby, we now amuse ourselves with Keenan Thompson as Prison Rape Boy. I know some very sound, actively pro-life Catholics who find those sketches funny — which reminds me of nothing more than the hordes of recently baptized Christians in late Rome and Byzantium who kept on flocking to cheer as the gladiators fought to the death.

Does leaving our prisons to turn into sewers of rape and brutalization do anything to deter future criminals? Maybe men who have been through this hell would do almost anything to avoid enduring it again. But studies say something different. A 2002 survey revealed that of 275,000 prisoners released in 1994, some 67.5 percent were rearrested within 3 years, and 51.8 percent landed back in prison. Maybe it isn’t the smartest thing to take men and break their spirits, grind them into the lowest sewers of human experience, leave them vulnerable to catching AIDS by rape, then turn them loose to walk the streets again. It certainly doesn’t seem like the Christian thing.

So maybe this Lent we can perform the work of mercy of helping prisoners by getting active in stopping their rape and torture. I urge you to visit and consider supporting Just Detention International, the Protestant Prison Fellowship Ministries, or the Catholic First Century Christian Missionaries, which address the rights and spiritual needs of the imprisoned.

In the meantime, I’ve decided one thing from doing this research: If I’m ever likely to get locked up, I intend to wave a realistic-looking water gun at the cops. Whatever I might have done, I won’t deserve to be locked in a U.S. prison. As things stand, no one does.

John Zmirak


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

  • Tom Piatak

    An excellent piece.

  • John

    An excellent and sobering article with a message that needs to be heard. The American Association of the Order of Malta, began a prison ministry program a few years ago as one of its signature projects. Since then the other two Associations of the Order in the U.S. have joined us in this sorely needed and forgotten ministry. Please visit our webpage and click on the link “prison ministry” to learn more.

  • antigon

    Given all the false wolf cries, raising the matter of racist disdain too often sounds like moral tub-thumping at best, when not just pure sham.

    But in light of Dr. Zmirak’s excellent piece, it might be worth noting the huge number – probably in pure numbers, but decisively in relation to their national population – of black men subject to this loathsome institutional torture. Given the application of U.S. drug laws, black women doubtless suffer comparable degradation.

    And this, of course, speaks only of those blacks who escape the (overwhelmingly white) abortionists’ knives, where relative again to their national population, three times as many black children get slaughtered in comparison to the victims of lighter hue.

    It would thus seem the wolf cries have served their foul purpose.

  • dan

    Our system contributes to nn endless cycle of release and re-incarceration,and this results in a seemingly permanent “under” class.

    Kids are born into broken environments, and the cycle goes on.
    Society (churches) need to reach out to this kids at a very young age and provide a positive environment.

  • Dori

    As a physician recruited as part of the solution to the medical crisis in California’s prison system, I am a medical executive over two facilities. One is a maximum security men’s facility where about 60% of the population are serving “life without parole.” The other is a level one facility with a fabulous “fire camp” program which trains the eligible inmates to become firefighters upon parole. They also have a number of other programs that provide preparation for life outside of prison as constructive members of society. I was heavily recruited and needed more regular hours. I had always seen my practice in the community as a ministry so it was a difficult decision. My husband said “you may not be able to change where they spend the rest of their lives, but you may be able to help change where one of them spends his eternity.” That sold me.

    The max facility I oversee is well run and the officers are highly professional. The medical providers I supervise are, on the whole of the highest caliber. We have to fight the enormous inertia of a state bureacracy to make positive change but we are doing it a little at a time.

    As a trained sexual assault forensic examiner, I have performed exams and done interviews for patients who had experienced sexual assault. I have witness far more horrible crimes in the prison, perpetrated from one inmate on another. We have a reception center where inmates come from the jails and enter the prison system after sentencing and are processed and endorsed to specific prisons. I have to say that I have seen very young people come in to the clinic there and present themselves for intake physicals. The tears in their eyes speak volumes of the terror at being committed to prison for the first time. I have grieved over the fact that for some, the entry in to the system would have rehabilitated them from the fear alone. Turning them around and paroling them on day two would make them a new citizen. Instead they enter boot camp for hardened criminals. I make it a practice NOT to know what they are committed for, I took a oath to care for all patients and don’t want to chance my care being compromised by bias. I train my staff to do the same.

    People look at prison rape as the awful truth and leave it at that. What they don’t talk about is the prison gang leaders (shock collars) who enroll new inmates and require them to commit crimes for them as “initiation.” (i.e. “shank this guy tomorrow or you’ll be next” or “check out that new doc and get him to prescribe morphine”). I will tell you all that I spend far more time resuscitating victims of multiple stabbings, blunt trauma and strangulation than I do seeing patients who are victims of sexual assault. It is a culture in every sense of the word. It is not a culture that we, as people who function in the general society can understand, and anyone who feels they can is deceived. It is so alien and so foreign to our understanding that many people simply can’t work in the correctional setting. I generally enjoy my interactions with most of my patients in the max facility. Many are trying to “game the doc” but some really are trying to see what’s different about the doc who sits by the bed of the patient dying of end stage cancer and prays with him when he asks for a Rosary. You can be firm and not fall victim to the games they try to play while remaining compassionate and caring. They are creatures of God, fallen, maybe, but little different in God’s eyes from you or I. They see the positive changes and know that things are better than they were. Many who have nothing better to do with the unstructured time will sue their providers while thanking them for the improved care and apologizing for the lawsuit. They are lost and living in a chaos of dysfunction, but they deserve my best, and joining a group that works to improve prison conditions would be a good move, if they are working for the right things. Structured time, skills, opportunities for service (yes some of them would like to volunteer time to good causes) and faith-based programs (which are the only programs demonstrated to significantly reduce recidivism). Prison is a place that I live every day, the difference is that I can leave at the end of a long day. I invite you to join those of us who try to model functional behavior and provide care to those incarcerated – even for life.

  • A Mitchell

    Thank you Dori, for taking the time to respond and provide more insight into this neglected situation.
    I can’t say anything that would thank you enough for your work on behalf of the body of your fellow Catholics for ministry. It is our ministry and many of us aren’t in the position to do more than pray. I want to share this story with my older children so we can more actively pray for you and for the prisoners in your care.

  • laura
  • dan

    Dori, thank you for the post.

  • elm


    This I have seen with my own eyes.

  • Rosemary M.

    elm, Do you mean Kairos? My son volunteers in this ministry and has seen positive results.

  • richard paul McMichael

    I try to fulfill this need by taking family of the inmates to visit. I even had a child baptized with his father present.

  • richard paul McMichael

    I have fulfilled this need by taking family members to visit. Once the father was able to be at his chid’s Baptism

  • Bob G

    Apparently the reason why the recidivism rate for prisons is so high is that released prisoners are totally unequipped to live in “normal” society, however much they might want to. The Atlantic Monthly some time ago ran an article on a promising solution: early (very early) release. It works this way. The parolee is fitted with an irremovable ankle bracelet that sends a constant signal to a monitor that tracks his/her movements within a yard. The receiving system knows exactly where the person is NOT allowed to go and reports immediately if the person goes there, and the police respond within a few minutes. The parolees love this system because they learn how to function in civil society and are prepared when they are finally “released.” The article says the success rate is enormous (very little recidivism) and the costs are incredibly low. Except for the most hardened and hopeless there is no reason for a prison system. We could rehabilitate the cons and cut our bills by a huge amount. The article was convincing to me. This problem is solvable.

  • Peter

    Like you, John, I was somewhat reluctant to meet prisoners face to face. Some years back I got wind of an interdenominational Christian prison ministry, Kairos, that sponsored structured three-day retreats for a group of pre-selected inmates. I went through several months of training with an amazing group of Christians (most of whom were to some degree or another fearful of working with prisoners). All of this training lead up to the “Torch Weekend,” which turned out to be one of the most transformative life experiences for me spiritually. After the Torch Weekend, I mentored a young inmate for several months. While this was no maximum security facility, I learned a tremendous amount about what it was like to be in prison and the tragic stories that lay behind these young men’s lives. As the physician mentioned earlier, I had no desire to know the crime of the young man I mentored. In that time, I learned about Divine Mercy first-hand. By extending mercy to men and women (in many cases who by purely human standards don’t deserve it) we are witnessing in a most powerful way to God’s mercy–which frankly many times we ourselves don’t deserve but He nonetheless extends it to us as His Gift. It’s just a hunch on my part, but I think I came to understand that when Our Lord exhorted us to extend ourselves in this way he understood that the person performing such a work of mercy was likely to benefit as much, if not more than, the person receiving the mercy.

  • jamie

    any kind of Rape is cry for vengenance from heavon, I see though that of course the author used this as forum to gay bash as always, since women can no longer be the scape goat for western societies ills it is gays, Consenual homosexual sex is not a crime Rape is, people in prison are not supposed to be having any sexual congress with anyone period its the law.