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December 24, 2004 - The Courier-Journal (KY)

Bishops Criticize U.S. Prisons

Southern Group Stresses Rehab

By Peter Smith

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Roman Catholic bishops in Southern states are stepping up their criticism of the nation's prison system, saying the nation should spend less on incarcerating people and more on crime prevention and prisoner rehabilitation.

And prison officials need to do more to help inmates with mental illnesses and drug addictions, according to an open letter written by the Bishops' Advisory Committee of the Catholic Committee of the South, based in Martin, Ky. The committee covers 11 states.

The bishops' letter, released in mid-December, is the fifth in a series of such letters on the criminal-justice system, following ones that have criticized such things as the privatization of prisons.

"We must stop the practice of putting so many people in prison," the bishops wrote, according to excerpts of the letter, recently released by the Catholic News Service. "...Our imprisonment rate is the highest in the world - six to 12 times higher than rates in other Western countries."

The letter called for more humane prison conditions and for national standards guaranteeing fair pay for prisoners on work details, saying that such wages could help reduce the need of inmates' families for welfare assistance.

"While recognizing that people who harm others must be held accountable for the hurt they have caused, we cannot give up on those who have made mistakes and violated laws," the letter said. "We must recognize the human dignity of all prisoners and remember that Jesus, himself, was a prisoner."

The bishops also called for states to focus on crime prevention, drug treatment and alternative sentences, particularly for nonviolent offenders. They opposed "simplistic solutions" such as the "three strikes and you're out" mandatory sentence for repeat offenders.

They called for the prevention of physical abuse of prisoners by other inmates or guards, and cited the need for "a dramatic increase in the treatment for mental illness" in the prison system.

In the previous four letters issued since 2002, the bishops have criticized such things as the higher incarceration rates in Southern states compared with the national average and have taken aim at the growing trend toward prison privatization.

Privately run prisons have been controversial in Kentucky. State officials have recommended imposing fines on one management company for its handling of a riot at a Beattyville prison in September, and Attorney General Greg Stumbo says the state cannot legally follow Gov. Ernie Fletcher's plan to use private management for a prison under construction in Elliott County.

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