EPPN Criminal Justice Series: During Incarceration

February 20, 2020

This week, the Office of Government Relations Criminal Justice Series will focus on prison conditions, particularly the treatment of and opportunities for those who are incarcerated. Prison sentences can be designed to accomplish many goals, including punishment (penalty for committing a crime), sequestration (removing particularly dangerous people from the community), deterrence (discouraging others from repeating a crime), and/or rehabilitation (restoration of individuals to a crime-free lifestyle).

The Episcopal Church supports rehabilitation programs that prepare prisoners to rejoin their community. We oppose exploitative practices in prisons and all forms of torture, including the use of solitary confinement. The Church encourages parishes and dioceses to develop ministries to support those in prisons and their families, advocating for job training, educational opportunities, and summer camps for children of the incarcerated.

Almost 40% of individuals entering prison lack a high school diploma or GED, and unemployment rates in this population are around 50%. Since people often leave prison with no additional education or job training, their employment prospects are worse, and it is unsurprising that recidivism is high.  A Bureau of Justice Statistics report examining prisoner recidivism from 2005 to 2014 discovered that 68% of individuals released from state prisons had been arrested again within three years of their release. After nine years, a staggering 83% of individuals released from state prisons had been re-arrested. Fortunately, recent research from The Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that state-level recidivism rates are decreasing, and a part of this decrease can be attributed to cost-effective, in-prison programs that help individuals transition back into their community better than when they left it.

In the current Congress, the bipartisan REAL Act of 2019 would restore Pell Grant eligibility for individuals incarcerated in a federal or state institution. Pell Grants help fund higher education for low-income students, and since 1992, incarcerated people have been ineligible. Participating in correctional education programs increases an individual’s likelihood of securing employment and lowers their risk of returning to prison. The Episcopal Church supports the REAL Act and asks you to encourage your Members of Congress to support this legislation.

Many programs around the country, including those sponsored by Episcopal parishes and dioceses, provide inmates with education, job training, mental health treatment, and mentoring. We wish to highlight a few here as a reminder of the power of local and collective action.

After hosting a Prison Summit Meeting in 2014, The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona created a Diocesan Prison Ministry Program to develop and oversee initiatives to serve the incarcerated. In addition to visitation programs, nonprofit partnerships, pen-pals, re-entry assistance, and in-prison worship services, the Diocese hosts Camp Genesis for children with at least one incarcerated parent for one week each summer. The Diocese fundraises to allow campers to attend at no cost to them, and parishes support the camp by donating backpacks with camp supplies and bibles and writing monthly letters to the students for the duration of the year.

Not all ministry is organized by dioceses or even parishes. Members of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Goffstown, New Hampshire, form a softball team each year to play against a team of inmates at the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women as part of a larger regional league that organizes games at the facility. The games offer a time of companionship and camaraderie for both the players and the many inmates who come to watch the games and cheer for a favorite team.

Contact your local parish or diocese to ask about Episcopal prison ministry initiatives!

 

Solitary Confinement

The Episcopal Church opposes solitary confinement due to its dehumanizing and harmful effects. The estimated 61,000 individuals in solitary confinement spend 22-24 hours a day in a cell with enforced idleness and almost no human interaction (this excellent PBS documentary shows the challenges faced by these inmates in solitary confinement). At the 2018 General Convention, the Office of Government Relations hosted a virtual reality solitary confinement experience to educate Episcopalians about this punishment.  

Solitary confinement is used for a variety of purposes: separation for inmates who pose a heightened threat to the general prison population or correctional staff, punishment for misbehavior, or “protection” for those who are deemed at risk in the general prison population. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners condemns extended solitary confinement because of its elevated risk for suicide and self-harm and considers solitary confinement for longer than 14 days to be torture. While the First Step Act of 2018 abolished solitary confinement for youth in federal facilities, many states still house individuals with serious mental illnesses in solitary. Since most programs have no fixed endpoint, it’s not unusual for people to spend months or even years in solitary.  Solitary confinement also makes it extremely difficult for individuals to reenter society.

The Episcopal Church condemns solitary confinement, heeding the call to “remember those in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3). The Office of Government Relations partners with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) to advocate for an end to the use of solitary confinement in the United States.

Most of the reforms focused on ending solitary confinement are at the state level – for instance, this legislation in New York. We urge you to learn more and get involved!  

 

Resources

On Solitary Confinement

General Convention Policy

  • 2018-D029: Condemn Prolonged Solitary Confinement as a Form of Torture
  • 2015-A011: Urge Advocacy for Policy Changes to End Mass Incarceration Practices
  • 2012-A077: Develop a Model Prisoner Ministry
  • 2003-A125: Establish Ministries to Assist Prisoners and Their Families
  • 1994-D035: Support Ministry to the Incarcerated