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

Opposes Death Penalty
Toward A More Humane Corrections System

A Call to Prison Reform in New Mexico

February 13, 1997
A Statement of the New Mexico Catholic Bishops

We the bishops of New Mexico wish to address issues surrounding the prisons and jails of our state. We do so out of a deep moral and pastoral concern for victims of crime, for offenders, and for the common good of our society. We believe this is an opportune moment for all of us to engage in discourse that will give a new and fresh look at our prisons, how they administer justice, and contribute to the rehabilitation of inmates.

We believe that in the light of plans for new prisons in our state, this is an opportune time to review our correctional system, its goals, programs, and approaches to incarceration and rehabilitation. We are aware that there are innovative programs that other states have found effective. We believe that as we plan new prisons, we should thoroughly investigate all avenues that will lead to better success with our prisons. As we plan to invest, let us invest in the best way possible that will lead toward a safer society.

In the context of protecting the public order and contributing to the common good, the state has both the right and the responsibility to punish wrongdoers. Some of those in our prisons and jails have done horrible things and have caused undue suffering. They have hurt the innocent and the defenseless, such as women and children, and have destroyed the security in our neighborhoods and communities. We support the mission of public safety which is committed to the reduction of criminal acts in our society. Of special concern to us as ministers of compassion are victims of violent crimes and their families. We pledge our solidarity to these and offer the healing outreach of our ministry.

At the same time, our Christian tradition holds that the human person is basically good, having been created in the image and likeness of God, and that everyone is in need of forgiveness and redemption. There is something good in all persons, including offenders, and all need to be given the opportunity to reform their lives.

The ideal would be that inmates, once released, would never again return to jail or prison. The sad reality, however, is that the majority. of our inmates do return, thus causing undue depletion of revenues from taxpayers. The annual budget for New Mexico prisons is $129 million. It is estimated that the cost of constructing two additional prisons will be $130 million. If these expenses were not made, this money could be used for education, health care, and other needs among our people. The rehabilitation of inmates is the ideal that we believe should be pursued as thoroughly as possible. Ninety percent of those in prison now will be back on the streets. We are not naive and know that some inmates will never change, but some can and will if given the opportunities for rehabilitation. Benefiting from this approach, besides the inmates themselves and their families, would be society itself.

We wish to address major concerns on the issue of privatizing our prisons. First, we would not favor contracting out prisons if this means the elimination or dilution of rehabilitation programs. Secondly, we would find it morally objectionable if prison employees are deprived of just wages and benefits when a prison is contracted to a private for-profit enterprise. Wages and benefits for employees in private prisons should be comparable to those received by state employees. Thirdly, the state should ensure that staffing is adequate in private prisons so that the safety within the prison, and in the surrounding community, is secure.

The state must change the image that our prisons and jails are "schools of crime," rather than environments conducive to reintegrating offenders into society. When an inmate returns to prison, it is a sign that we have all failed. We religious leaders speak for chaplains, volunteer lay ministers, and others who are so strongly dedicated to prison ministry, in saying that we commit whatever resources we might have to work together with civil authorities to make our jails and prisons places of healing and not only places for punishment. We experience day by day the power of prison ministry, of the Word of God, and of spiritual counseling that contribute so strongly to positive change.

In the past we have gone on record opposing New Mexico inmates being transferred out of state. This approach takes the inmates far away from their families which may be the only positive influence in the reform of their lives. There is a lack of compassion in making it practically impossible for families to have any contact with relatives in prisons and jails. It could also take them away from drug and alcohol abuse programs, as well as religion and education opportunities that foster rehabilitation.

Extremely overcrowded prison conditions may require the transfer of inmates to other locations temporarily. This should be done judiciously and with clear time lines as to their reintegration into the state's correctional institution closest to his or her family. We emphasize that the transferal of inmates out of state should be done only as an extreme measure and not become regular policy.

On September 19, 1995 we issued a statement opposing capital punishment. Today, we wish to reiterate our opposition to the death penalty. In solidarity with the U. S. Catholic Bishops, we view our commitment to the value and dignity of human life. We believe that a return to the use of the death penalty is only leading to further erosion of respect for life in our society.

In light of the above, we offer the following practical recommendations:

  1. Expand treatment for low-risk offenders in a community-based setting wherever possible.
  2. We recommend that there be a separation between the violent and nonviolent offenders as well as a separation of those inmates committed to rehabilitation from those who show no interest in reform. Models of therapeutic communities should be fostered.
  3. Viable education, as well as behavior modification and treatment programs, need to be made available to those who are willing to commit themselves to them.
  4. Effective drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs need to be in place if we are to lessen the rate of recidivism. Twelve-step programs have proven effective around the country, and we urge that these programs be made available to all inmates.
  5. The state needs to commit itself to contribute to a successful transition of a released inmate to his or her family and community. Included in this are would be considerations regarding employment, housing, and further education.
  6. The Corrections Department should seriously consider developing a victim awareness program inside the prisons as well as in our communities. Victim awareness programs respond to the needs of victims and contribute to the process of healing for the victim and reformation of the offender.
  7. We call for a dialogue between officials of the New Mexico Department of Corrections and religious leaders of the state in order to promote a more collaborative relationship. The exchange would include such areas as sensitivity for religious diversity and other issues of mutual concern.

We underscore that this is a very good time to look beyond the present approaches to our correctional systems. We must not be afraid to consider new paradigms of corrections that will be less costly, more effective, and more humane.

We recall that Jesus Christ had the experience of an inmate. The night before he died, he was jailed and physically abused. He eventually suffered the capital punishment of his day, the crucifixion. He died, in the eyes of civil authorities, a criminal who had been found guilty by the judges of his day.

Among the priorities in the heart and mind of Jesus Christ is the concern for the imprisoned. In Matthew 25, he mentions how we will be judged as to whether we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick or those in jail. Among those people with whom he identified were the jailed. "I was in jail and you visited me.. just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

We take this opportunity to pay tribute to our dedicated men and women in law enforcement and those who are in our correctional system. We recognize the demands of their profession and that often their very lives are in danger. We extend our gratitude and our respect for the exercise of their duties and offer any support, spiritual and moral, that we have at our disposal.

Most Reverend Michael J. Sheehan, S.T.L., J.C.D.
Archbishop of Santa Fe

Most Reverend Ricardo Ramirez, C.S.B., D.D.
Bishop of Las Cruces

Most Reverend Donald E. Pelotte, S.S.S., D.D., h.D.
Bishop of Gallup