Anyone who has seen the movie “Cool Hand Luke” starring Paul Newman will remember the explanation of the rules by Boss Carr: “Any man forgets his (clothes) number spends a night in the box. Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box. Any man fighting in the building spends a night in the box.” And on it goes for another six or seven rules.
What might be a humorous scene in the movie represents a very serious situation for many men and women who are incarcerated. “The box” is commonly known as solitary confinement – sometimes called isolated confinement. The New York state prison system has developed a system of solitary confinement called “Special Housing Units” since the 1970s.
In these SHUs, inmates spend 23 hours a day in a single cell and are denied any programming or religious worship, and are offered only limited privileges to visitation. Current plans by the state call for long periods of confinement in cells that severely restrict access to personal hygiene, physical exercise, human contact and religious worship. It is estimated that there are 4,500 inmates across the state in SHUs on any given day – upwards of 35 percent higher than the average of other states.
The New York State Catholic Conference had spoken to this issue as one of its 2012 legislative agenda items. The conference recognized that managing the prisons “clearly depends in part on the ability of correction officers and administrators to discipline inmates for infractions of facility rules.” A program of discipline helps to keep officers and other inmates alike safe from violence and able to exercise their rights.
The question is, the conference said, whether “the conditions under which they operate, the extent of their use, and the extended length of time of their use” is such that it denies the inmates their human dignity and whether punishment overrides concerns for safety, rehabilitation or restitution.
SHUs are but one example of the issue that crime and criminal justice poses for us as Catholics. The U.S. bishops addressed this moral issue in their document, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration,” issued in 2000. They note that “our society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and retribution to restoration, thereby indicating a failure to recognize prisoners as human beings.”
The bishops go on to point out that approaching “criminal justice” in a way that is inspired by our Catholic vision is a paradox. “We cannot and will not tolerate behavior that threatens lives and violates the rights of others. We believe in responsibility, accountability and legitimate punishment.”
A Catholic approach “does not give up on those who violate these laws. We believe that both victims and offenders are children of God. Their lives and dignity should be protected and respected. We seek justice, not vengeance.”
Blessed John Paul II said this: “We are still a long way from the time when our conscience can be certain of having done everything possible to prevent crime and to control it effectively so that it no longer does harm and, at the same time, to offer to those who commit crimes a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society.”
Our bishops ask us to advocate for a system that simultaneously seeks justice for the victims of crime and upholds the dignity of inmates. We are still a long way off, indeed.
Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Western New York and an instructor