On behalf of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, I present the 2011–2012 Social Justice Statement, Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the justice system.
The words of the bishops urge us all to think about the conditions in our prisons, and to ask who are most likely to find themselves there.
Between 1984 and 2008, the number of Australians in prison per 100,000 people almost doubled. Over that time, however, rates of crime either stayed steady or fell. The majority of Australian prisoners come from the most disadvantaged sections of the community: Indigenous people, the underprivileged, those suffering from mental illness. Given these facts, we must ask if the justice system is truly delivering justice to our community.
In raising these questions, we are in no way seeking to justify crimes or minimise the terrible impact they can have on innocent people. But we do ask whether so many people should be in Australian jails, whether there are constructive alternatives to imprisonment, and what is being done to help prisoners lead productive lives once they have served their time.
We wish to pay tribute to the untiring work of prison chaplains, whose insights have been vital in drafting this Statement. In particular, we wish to pay tribute to the help given us by the late Fr Kevin Ryan of Queensland. He spoke strongly of the dignity owed to these people even to the final days of his life.
Again and again in the Gospel, we read how Jesus reached out to the marginalised and rejected, and called on his followers to do the same. It is our hope that this Statement will help all Australians heed that call. Jesus’ path to Calvary led through the gates of prison.
His cousin, John the Baptist, was committed to jail and executed there. Untold numbers of martyrs and saints, including Sts Peter and Paul, experienced the same fate. And it is also worth our while recalling that convicts were among Australia’s first Catholics.
We pray for guidance to find ways to reach out like Christ to the forgotten and rejected in our society.
With every blessing,
Christopher A Saunders DD
Bishop of Broome
Chairman, Australian Catholic
Social Justice Council
An electronic version of the Statement is available on the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference website at www.catholic.org.au and
the ACSJC website at www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au