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New Mexico Catholic Conference Opposes Death Penalty & Calls for Prison Reform

Opposes Death Penalty
A Call to Prison Reform in New Mexico

Toward A More Humane Corrections System

The following statement was issued on February 1, 1996, by the three bishops of the New Mexico State Catholic Conference: Santa Fe Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, Las Cruces Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, and Gallup Bishop Donald E. Pelotte.

It would be in the interest of all New Mexicans for citizens and public officials alike to work for the development of a more efficient and a more humane corrections system in our state. The need for such action is urgent, given the current climate of controversy surrounding the issues of crime and punishment.

We also are alarmed, along with fellow citizens, about the tragedy of crime in our state and our hearts go out to victims of crime and their families. We also encourage our law enforcement personnel in their difficult task of protecting the public from criminals and promoting a safe and just society. But we should strive for rehabilitation, not simply incarceration.

We, therefore, take this opportunity to raise several moral considerations surrounding two corrections programs. These are the transfer of New Mexico prisoners to county jails in Texas and the cancellation of the furlough program for short-term prisoners. It appears that policies involved in these issues are adversely affecting not only prisoner family relationships, but also volunteer programs seeking to help inmates turn their lives around and to save taxpayers' money.

Transfer of Prisoners

We question whether the criteria for selecting prisoners for displacement to Texas are adequate. It is our understanding that the only standards for selecting prisoners for transfer is that they have 8 years or more remaining on their sentences and that they do not pose a danger to others. We feel, however, that a formal hearing, taking other human factors into consideration, should be conducted to make evaluations on a case-by-case basis. We know, for example, that some inmates already transferred had been receiving services here which are a source of stability and rehabilitation for them. We feel that these services have produced a positive effect on the well-being of prisoners, including some inmates involved in religious programs operated by volunteers from various churches.

Reports indicate that these services are unlikely to be duplicated in Texas, nor are the inmates likely to receive any services to speak of in county institutions there. Sending the inmates packing to Dallas, so far away from their families and the services provided here, could reverse all of the progress made to date. And, of course, the rupture of rehabilitation efforts poses the threat of increased recidivism. Without a formal hearing, for these prisoners, these factors may be overlooked in the selection process.

We are also deeply concerned about the transfer of New Mexico inmates (men and women) not only to Texas but to other parts of the country, far way from their immediate families, children, parents, and spouses. For example, 40 women have been transferred from New Mexico to Panama City, Florida. This creates undue hardship for the family members and inmates, making visitations virtually impossible.

Furthermore, in view of the fees charged by out-of-state institutions and transportation costs, the savings in the transfer program will not be significant.

We agree with Judge John Conway's recent decision to enjoin the state of New Mexico from transferring more prisoners to Texas. We hope the injunction win be made permanent.

Canceling of Furlough

The prison furlough program is designed to alleviate overcrowding and to help inmates prepare for a transition to release from prison by getting family and friends involved in the process. Contrary to the distorted impression fostered in the news media, prison furlough was not a "vacation program for inmates." From our observation, it is generally inaccurate to say that dangerous inmates are selected for furlough. Perhaps a more stringent process should be followed in selecting the inmates to participate in furlough, but the program should not be cancelled

Catholic Services

The Catholic Church has sought to assist inmates by an active prison ministry throughout the state of New Mexico. The encouragement of religious motivation is considered very beneficial for the rehabilitation of offenders.

A word about the "Encounter with Christ" program conducted by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe: this program has operated since 1984 both inside and outside the penal institutions at Los Lunas. Aside from providing weekly contact between inmates and volunteers, it also features an intensively spiritual, 72-hour weekend program twice a year

One of these "Encounter" weekends had been for honor-farm inmates who were able to live the weekend experience in the parish hall of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Albuquerque's North Valley.

Catholic volunteers believed it is wrong to construe the Albuquerque weekend as furlough. Never have there been any problems associated with these weekends. So it was that, when furlough was eliminated, volunteers and prisoners alike were astounded to be informed that this weekend could no longer be conducted outside the institution.

We feel that these programs should be viewed as positive alternatives to current plans; they could become a catalyst for implementing new ideas. It is our belief that thorough research would determine that these programs have a positive effect on the rate of recidivism. Furthermore, we feel it would be important to devise a program of sensitivity training for Corrections Department leadership and personnel in order to heighten their understanding of these programs and their effectiveness. This would help us rehabilitate those inmates who are open to change and who eventually will be returned to society. Incarceration without serious efforts at rehabilitation is not the solution to the problem of crime.