There is a disturbing trend in the United States toward limiting contact between incarcerated individuals and the outside world. For example, last month the state of New York began a pilot program that banned the direct shipment of food, household items and even books to prisoners, instead requiring senders to choose from the limited offerings of an expensive online vendor. Fortunately, Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended the program after a public outcry, but it has not been formally canceled.
Across the country, at least 600 prison facilities have introduced video conferencing, with per-minute charges, to replace or supplement in-person visits under the guise of cost efficiency and security. Over 75 percent of those facilities have ended in-person visits altogether. Less direct but equally effective forms of deterring visitors are also rising, as evidenced by recent reports of visitor harassment at Rikers Island and other facilities. (Moving inmates far from their families, even to the other side of the country, is another longstanding practice, employed by private prisons especially.) And last year the Federal Communications Commission announced that it will no longer regulate the cost of prison phone calls, which private phone companies with prison contracts had hiked to more than $1 a minute.
The net effect of these policies is a reduction in human contact and interaction for those who are incarcerated. They stem from a mindset that is contrary to respect for human life and dignity—a mindset that prisons are warehouses and the corrections system is a business.
At least 600 prisons have introduced video conferencing to replace or supplement in-person visits.
Our society cannot afford to treat the least among us as less than or as the “other.” We at the Thrive For Life Prison Project, a prison ministry rooted in Ignatian spirituality and Catholic social teaching, believe that any policy that increases the distance between the imprisoned and those who love and support them is contradictory to the concept of rehabilitation, un-Christian and ultimately inhumane.
Human relationships and interactions are necessary for a healthy, meaningful life. For the incarcerated, who struggle with loneliness and depression, human interaction is even more critical. Behind prison walls, human contact is often degraded and distorted: Eye contact is seen as threatening instead of respectful, handshakes are associated with gang activity or potential contraband hand-offs, and other physical contact is limited to violence. Removing positive interactions further isolates these men and women.
Any policy that increases the distance between the imprisoned and those who love and support them is contradictory to the concept of rehabilitation.
“At the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others,” Pope Francis writes in “Evangelii Gaudium.” And French philosopher Chantal Delsol extols the benefits of direct exchanges between people by describing how they cultivate and promote human virtue. In such exchanges, the giver experiences charity and generosity, while the recipient feels gratitude and support.
In the Gospels, we often witness the healing power of human touch, particularly when it comes to Jesus’ miracles. One poignant example is the succession of events in Mark 5. First the crowd “pressed upon him” as he traveled from the sea to the house of Jairus, then the woman with hemorrhages reaches out to touch the hem of his cloak, and, finally, Jesus heals the young girl while holding her hand.
When we are downcast, we all reach out for help and for hope. We all yearn for contact and for human connection.
In our experience serving men and women who are imprisoned, we have seen firsthand the power of human connection. Thrive For Life founder Zach Presutti, S.J., has spearheaded hundreds of care package campaigns and prison retreats. Prisoners have responded with an outpouring of gratitude. Based on the notes, letters and thank-you cards we receive, it is clear that the items themselves—things we take for granted like soap, clean clothing and deodorant—are appreciated, but the opportunity for human connection is of even greater value. The retreats and guided meditations we facilitate are restorative, and the chance for a friendly conversation with a volunteer is even more consoling. The men and women behind bars receive meaningful gifts from caring members of the community—social workers, priests, finance professionals, teachers, high school students, retirees, media executives—that are not limited to an online catalog.
When we choose to view people as human beings and facilitate human contact, we can achieve common goals. Safety improves. Outcomes improve. A 2013 study in the Criminal Justice Policy Review showed that “visitation significantly decreased the risk of recidivism” after release from prison, and “more visitor-friendly visitation policies could yield public safety benefits by helping offenders establish a continuum of social support.”
At Thrive For Life, we believe in the healing power of human contact. Our newest initiative is focused on facilitating community and closeness. We are opening the Ignacio House of Studies this year in the Bronx to house and support up to 24 formerly incarcerated individuals who are pursuing education and workforce training. We will fill the rooms of Ignacio House with volunteers, partners and supportive services because we have seen the power of community and its ability to reduce recidivism and ultimately, to heal.
But post-release programs cannot succeed on their own. If we want to give these individuals a chance, if we want to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated, and if we want to help them re-enter society, prison policies should work to facilitate and increase human contact, not obstruct it.