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U.S. Bishops State Concern about Women in Prison

Mar 13th, 2007 | Category: Women and Jails

By CatholicOnline.org

MARTIN, Ky. – A group of more than 30 Southern bishops issued a pastoral statement urging a new look at how the criminal justice system treats women in prison.

“We do not tolerate sin or crime,” the bishops said in the statement, “Women in Prison,” issued March 27. “But we bishops of the southern U.S. call our people to recognize the dignity of those women who suffer from incarceration in our prison system and to help them toward responsibility, reconciliation and restoration.”

The bishops said the female population in U.S. prisons “is escalating faster than that of men in prison. In fact, the U.S. now has 10 times more women in prison than the combined nations of Western Europe with approximately the same number of women in the population.”

The statement quoted the testimony last year of Kathy Masulis, a volunteer teacher in a women’s prison. Masulis said, “Most women in our correctional system are poor, and many were accomplices to crimes committed by their boyfriends or husbands. They are now held in a system largely designed by and for men, despite the fact that incarcerated women are usually not a threat to public safety, nor are they likely to attempt escape.

“The majority are single parents of minor children. They tend to be depressed rather than angry,” Masulis added. “They are pregnant; they are mothers and grandmothers. They are undereducated and underemployed. Most should be in treatment, not in jail.”

The bishops also quoted from the U.S. bishops’ 2000 statement, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” which said 70 percent of female inmates are nonviolent offenders, “and an equal number have left children behind, often in foster care, as they enter prison.”

In “Women in Prison,” the Southern bishops made three points:

– Most women in prison are victims of severe and prolonged physical and/or sexual abuse.

– Nine out of 10 women in prison are substance abusers, and many are medicated while in prison.

– Imprisoned women are generally mothers of minor children “and suffer deeply as a result of separation from their families.”

Based on their findings, they also issued four recommendations:

– “The overwhelming number of women in prison belong in treatment, classrooms … and/or vocational training rather than in prison. This is particularly the case when they are pregnant or single mothers, who are nonviolent drug offenders, convicted many times merely as accomplices.”

– “With the cost of probation being only a fraction of the cost of incarceration,” the former should be preferred over the latter, they said, citing the dispersal of families and the need to place “dependent children on public welfare.”

– “Educational opportunities are desperately needed,” they said. “It has been demonstrated that recidivism goes down as educational levels go up, yet many facilities lack sufficient staff and programs to help those incarcerated move through adult basic education … to prepare them for re-entry into society.”

– “Vocational training must be greatly expanded” for women, who often “leave prison with few options for making a decent living,” the bishops said. “Given that most of these women are the sole support of children, the need for job training is even more urgent.”

The statement was signed by 31 active Catholic bishops in 10 Southern states, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

It was the seventh in a series of pastoral statements issued by the bishops over the past three years on the criminal justice process. Past subjects have included prison conditions, alternatives to incarceration, juvenile justice, for-profit prisons and a re-examination of the region’s criminal justice system.

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