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California bishops' report proposes prison reforms.

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.

In addition to addressing prisoners' spiritual needs, the conference report requested that prisoners who meet state standards be granted parole. A policy set by the governor-appointed Board of Prison Terms denies parole to those serving term-to-life sentences.

The conference also asked the corrections department to reinstate extended family visits to lifers and provide affordable transportation for families to women's prisons -- changes it believes will reduce prison violence and strengthen family relationships, motivating inmates toward rehabilitation.

In addition, the report requested that more physicians be hired for women's health care. In response, Cambra detailed policies designed to "deliver health care ... consistent with community standards."

Delegates question these standards, noting the deaths of 17 Chowchilla inmates last year. The deaths prompted a state senator to hold hearings into allegations of medical neglect. One case involved a 39-year-old woman with cancer, whose chemotherapy was repeatedly postponed. Later, drugs were mistakenly injected into her shoulder, causing an abscess requiring surgery and a lengthy recovery. By this time, her cancer had become terminal.

In Security Housing Units, prisoners' mental health problems alarmed delegates. They observed that some inmates in long-term isolation had become disoriented and unable to communicate. Dolejsi, though acknowledging that isolation is sometimes necessary, objects to the large number of prisoners sentenced to security housing for indeterminate periods. The report asks that the practice be revised or revoked.

Cambra defended the policy. He said prisoners are sent to these solitary confinement units because they represent a threat to other inmates or to institutional security, or because they jeopardize internal investigations. Cambra said inmates in isolation are "routinely seen by medical staff."

The conference views its dialogue with the corrections department as ongoing, but can point to some early successes. These successes include filling 11 vacancies for Catholic chaplains and developing a job description and screening procedures for hiring them.

Delegates' tour of the California Institution for Women in Corona in May led to physical improvements there: new window screens and shelves and refurbished beds in the 116-cell Reception Center and a $20,000 awning outside the dining room where inmates line up for meals. The overhang was donated by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Noting the state prisons' recidivism rate exceeding 60 percent, the conference is also addressing the needs of released prisoners by providing dioceses with guidelines for resettling inmates. "The majority will be back on the streets between two and four years," Dolejsi said. The guidelines include suggestions to assess prisoners' needs before release; identify local resources for housing, jobs and social services; and enlist mentoring and support from parishes.

"Society demonizes people who have committed crimes," Zavala said, and voters elect politicians who are tough on criminals. Most Catholics have an "out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward inmates. They need to know the pain of prisoners' families sitting next to them in the pews." Location of prisons in remote areas makes it hard to recruit volunteers and priests, he said.

Dolejsi also noted the lack of funding for prerelease programs, including counseling and job training, during inmates' last six months of confinement.

Zavala envisions a collaborative effort among diocesan offices, parishes, and the Catholic conference. The conference report calls on various diocesan offices to bring their programs to prisoners' family members, develop correspondence courses for inmates in isolation, and promote restorative justice legislation in which victims voice their needs and offenders work to repair the harm they have caused to victims and the community.

"Prisoners know they have committed terrible crimes," Zavala said. "But they are part of the Body of Christ. We need to be present to them."

The full text of the delegation's report can be found on the California Catholic Conference's Web site at ministry2prisons.html
Special to the National Catholic Reporter
San Diego
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jul 13, 2001
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