California Bishops' Report Proposes Prison Reforms

By Carr, Joyce | National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001 | Go to article overview

California Bishops' Report Proposes Prison Reforms

Carr, Joyce, National Catholic Reporter

In March, a 16-year-old boy hanged himself in a Los Angeles juvenile detention facility after carving his grandmother's name in his arm.

Last year on Mother's Day, a 13-year-old Los Angeles girl visited her incarcerated mother for the first time in eight years. The reason for the delay: Her guardian couldn't afford transportation to the distant Chowchilla prison.

In another case, Theresa Cruz has been separated for nearly a decade from her four children, though the staff at the Corona women's prison in California has twice recommended her release. Her crime? After a former abusive partner continued to stalk her, she confided in a male friend who shot the abuser in the leg. Though the bullet left no permanent injury, Cruz is serving seven years to life for conspiracy to commit murder.

The California Catholic Conference of Bishops hopes to reduce the number of such incidents through its stepped-up advocacy for a more just penal system. The conference has launched an ecumenical project to improve the church's role in ministering to prisoners, victims and their families and to develop a partnership with the California Department of Corrections.

In the past two years, delegations of Catholic, Lutheran and Quaker leaders have toured 13 state prisons. The state's system houses an estimated 160,000 inmates in 33 institutions and 38 camps.

Led by Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala, the conference's liaison for prison ministry, the delegates met with each detention facility's staff and heard inmates' grievances.

The conference compiled delegates' observations into a report that was divided into recommendations for the church and for the California State Department of Corrections. The church, it said, needs to provide more Catholic chaplains, outreach to prisoners' families and victims, resettlement programs for released convicts, assistance to undocumented immigrants detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, public education on the death penalty, programs for inmates in solitary confinement, and programs to combat racism.

In its recommendations to the Department of Corrections, the report called for protection of inmates' religious freedom, policies that support inmates' relationships with their families, educational and addiction recovery programs, and attention to women's health issues. It decried such practices as indeterminate sentences and solitary confinement, denial of parole, lack of representation of California's diverse population on the parole board, and abuses by guards.

In a written response to the report, Steven Cambra, Jr., acting director of the California Corrections Department, defended some policies but asked for a "continued dialogue" with bishops.

Conference executive director Ned Dolejsi said he welcomed such a dialogue and hoped it would lead to better conditions for prisoners and eventually in fewer parolees returning to crime.

The delegation's report urged the corrections department to give inmates more flexible work schedules, enabling them to attend worship services. Worship services lead to many conversions, according to a parolee from the California State Prison in Sacramento, who calls himself a "recovering career criminal, drug addict and racist." A former clerk for prison chaplain Deacon Dennis Merino, he told NCR that Catholic services, coupled with the chaplain's "compassion, nonjudgmental attitude and unconditional love ... saved my life. Dennis helped me see the good in myself."

Merino described duties that range from locating halfway houses for parolees to conducting support groups and memorial services for prisoners' relatives. "My job is like emptying the ocean with a cup," he said.

In some institutions, chaplains serve up to 7,000 inmates due to an inadequate budget for chaplaincy, Dolejsi said. Further, lockdowns for violent behavior keep inmates in their cells and thwart chaplains' efforts to hold religious services, and guards in some security units forbid prisoners to have direct contact with others, preventing them from receiving the Eucharist. …

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