A few weeks ago I joined about two dozen other volunteers who went inside a local prison to offer a four- day retreat to 40 of the men inside the facility. I have been part of this ministry for over 10 years, and in that time I have had the opportunity to meet a great number of inmates who, although they have made some serious mistakes in their lives, are dedicated to turning their lives around.
Each time we offer one of these weekend retreats, it gives me pause to consider the perspective of our faith on our criminal justice system. This time I was struck by the most basic of our beliefs: the respect for the life and dignity of the human person.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have a tendency to group people into categories: "conservatives," "liberals," "the poor," "immigrants," "prisoners." And when we do that, we frequently fail to see the individuals that are a part of that group - and it makes it hard for us to truly appreciate the value and uniqueness of the person.
We can easily forget that our prisons are filled with men and women who have families, who perhaps once had dreams and hopes of a different life, who may truly regret their crime and are looking only toward the day when they can finish paying their debt and get a chance at making a new life.
There is no argument that some form of prison system is absolutely necessary. Society needs a way to protect us all from those who threaten lives, or inflict harm, or take property. Any civilized society must have a means to simultaneously punish wrongdoing and segregate criminals from the rest of us.
But our faith also commands us to keep in mind that the punishment must be tempered with mercy. Regardless of their crimes, each person behind bars is still filled with inviolable dignity, value and worth - simply because they are a child of God. Our dignity and our value are not something we earn, nor something we can lose by our actions.
Whenever I am a part of these weekend retreats I have the opportunity to meet some of these men inside who are searching for a way to be a better person. I get to see them as individuals, to hear their stories, to share their sorrows, to laugh with them, to sing with them, and to pray and worship with them. They are no longer "prisoners," but Mike and Carlos and Andrew and Rollie.
Our challenge in approaching "big issues" like criminal justice reform is to not only see the issue in the abstract, but to understand its effect on the real people involved. We must balance the necessity of a system of incarceration with the need to preserve the dignity and worth of those who are incarcerated. This makes our perspective on how to reform the penal system complicated and challenging; but being Catholic has always meant rejecting simplistic solutions.