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 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.

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