This piece discusses sexual assault, incarceration, violence, racism and drug abuse. Please refer to the end of the article for on- and off-campus resources.
“If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” So goes the traditional paraphrase of Psalm 95 often sung in Catholic Mass. For me, it is an unforgettable call to listen attentively and open our hearts to those signs that creation brings us, those nudges and indications God sends us to enact peace and justice on Earth. That promise to open our hearts, even when it challenges us and pushes us outside of our comfort zones, is a key component of Catholicism’s mission to serve the world. Our mission extends to those moments when God’s voice cries out among people who we as a society have hidden from view, among the dehumanized and silenced. It becomes especially paramount when hardening our hearts proves easier than ministering and loving.
Too often, we have allowed our hearts to harden, especially when we consider the incarcerated. We see news of the inhumane conditions in carceral facilities and the abuse inmates face, and we avert our eyes. We learn of the pervasive disparities associated with incarceration and the criminal justice system that disproportionately impact BIPOC, the countless stories of wrongful incarceration, and we stay silent. Feeling empathy for persons who allegedly committed egregious offenses, regardless of their innocence or guilt, is often challenging. Incarceration becomes a scarlet letter that tarnishes the standing of these people in our society.
The Catholic Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long advocated for criminal justice reform, rightfully decrying the inhumanity and injustice that has so characterized our justice system. The Church has largely neglected activism on prison conditions, however, almost exclusively devoting resources to the continued usage of the death penalty and the need for sentencing reform. Our Church community cannot continue to turn away when confronted with the grim realities and stark injustices of our carceral system.
In scripture and in Catholic social teaching, caring for the marginalized and downtrodden is a cardinal obligation. Proverbs 21:13 reminds us, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.” In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, St. Teresa of Calcutta, in reference to how Jesus appears to us in daily life, noted that Jesus “makes himself the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one.” And as we learn in the Gospels, responding to the cries of the downtrodden and marginalized is to minister and care for Jesus Himself. Meanwhile, to ignore the plight of the “least among us” is to injure Jesus Himself.
The incarcerated are also among the afflicted and marginalized. There is no shortage of investigative journalism stories, accountability reports from the Department of Justice and state governments, and legal briefs filed by advocacy groups attesting to the blood-chilling conditions in our nation’s prisons. Sexual assault, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, drug abuse and mistreatment of the mentally ill in prisons run rampant in federal prisons. And incarceration disproportionately affects BIPOC, with BIPOC making up a far larger share of the prison population than their share of the national population and receiving disproportionately higher sentences for the same offenses as white defendants.
These problems are only made worse by the rampant spread of coronavirus in carceral facilities. According to the Marshall Project and the Associated Press, one in five prisoners in the United States has had COVID-19. In some states, over half of the prison population has been infected. Mask usage and social distancing in prisons is nearly nonexistent.
Prison facilities lack the resources to adequately care for and protect inmates from a disease that could potentially kill them or leave them with severe damage to their organs. Furthermore, states throughout the country, regardless of partisan leadership, have largely neglected incarcerated persons in the design of vaccine distribution plans. In some cases, states have precluded the incarcerated from priority access, and in other cases, states have prioritized corrections workers over the incarcerated. As Gov. Jared Polis (D) blithely stated back in December 2020: “There’s no way that prisoners are going to get it before members of a vulnerable population … before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime.”
Over half of Colorado’s carceral population tested positive for COVID-19. Surely this rapid spread indicates that incarcerated persons are a vulnerable population. But instead, because society sees prisoners as disposable and less deserving of compassion, politicians feel license to deny them the dignity and worth they deserve. Our society hardens its hearts because to open them would prove too inconvenient and too uncomfortable, even at this moment in which we face glaring discrimination against marginalized communities, including the socioeconomically disadvantaged and BIPOC.
So often our Church has stood by, not doing enough to advocate on the behalf of incarcerated people. Our Church has focused obsessively on issues relating to abortion and stem cell research, depriving the well-being and dignity of the incarcerated of our attention. In fact, the most recent USCCB statement to include a substantial discussion on prison conditions was released in 2000. The cry for justice is urgent, and we must do more to meet the moment.
As a Church, we must be a courageous contrast. When we hear that voice of God that rings out from within our prisons and jails, when we see abuse and mistreatment, we have a profound obligation to speak up and intervene. We must expand our ministry in prisons, engage in difficult conversations around historical Church complicity in carceral sin and devote far more ministerial and advocacy resources to the systemic overhaul of our carceral system.
Moving past the dehumanization of incarcerated people that society has long ingrained in us and opening our hearts will not be easy, but we cannot avoid the cry for justice. We cannot let our hearts harden any further. Especially as COVID-19 continues to ravage the United States’ prisons, the Church must now expand its advocacy and further commit to the difficult work of advocating for the dignity of the incarcerated, treating them with compassion and mercy, and bearing witness now and always to their plights.
Eric Bazail-Eimil is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Keeping the Faith appears online every other Friday.
Resources: On-campus confidential resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949) and Counseling and Psychiatric Services (202-687-6985); additional off-campus resources include the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (202-333-7273), the National Substance Abuse Hotline (800-662-4357) and the D.C. Forensic Nurse Examiner Washington Hospital Center (1-844-443-5732). If you or anyone you know would like to receive a sexual assault forensic examination or other medical care — including emergency contraception — call the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. (202-742-1727). To report sexual misconduct, you can contact Georgetown’s Title IX coordinator (202-687-9183) or file an online report here. Emergency contraception is available at the CVS located at 1403 Wisconsin Ave. NW and through H*yas for Choice. For more information, visit sexualassault.georgetown.edu.