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I was in prison ...

I've only been to prison once in my life, but it sure was an eye-opening experience.

About six years ago I joined a group of volunteers visiting Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, a state women's prison in New Jersey. Edna Mahan, like most prisons, is an imposing and uninviting structure where the guards are more than a little intimidating. I was there for a program called Project Storybook, which gives inmates the opportunity to record themselves reading a book to their children and then delivers a copy of the recording and the book to the child, helping families stay connected during an undoubtedly trying time in their lives.

We don't often think of prisoners as being parents, but for the few hours I was with them it was easy to forget that I was talking to women who were convicted of crimes. None of them mentioned why they were in prison, nor did I ask. But their eyes lit up as they spoke about their children, and I was touched by the warmth and emotion they showed in opening up about the difficulties of being away from their families. I can only imagine what that separation must have been like for their children.

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Since that night I've done a great deal of research on our nation's flawed prison system. I learned that many of the people serving time at Edna Mahan and other prisons nationwide had been convicted of minor offenses, such as merely being in the same room as a family member caught selling drugs out of their home. Our country's harsh sentencing laws often put such people behind bars for decades for nonviolent crimes, which has led us to become the most imprisoned population on earth. Punishing the guilty for their mistakes has become the primary goal of our justice system, while the wounds caused by crime are often left unhealed.

Catholics have been part of a growing movement to change our broken system, addressing the needs of both the imprisoned and the victims who fail to find solace in a purely punitive model of criminal justice ("Truth and consequences," pages 12-17). And as Mark Meade writes in "From death into life," we have an even more urgent need to reach out to those who are sentenced to be executed for their crimes (Practicing Catholic, pages 47-48).

Our justice system and yes, even our prisons are a necessary means of protecting the common good. But Christ's death and resurrection guarantee that each of us, no matter how grave our crime, is offered an opportunity for forgiveness. And as Jesus himself reminds us in Matthew 25, we cannot turn away from those whose sins have landed them in prison.

In fact, I am probably long overdue for another visit.
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Title Annotation:editors' note
Author:Alessi, Scott
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 2013
Words:461
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