Prisons "are structures of the human condition and structures of sin," often reflecting a society's revenge against its incarcerated citizens, rather than their rehabilitation, the founder of Nigeria's prison chaplains told a conference on prison reform - writes Patricia Lefevere.
Monsignor Obiore Ike challenged 150 human rights advocates, lawyers, judges, academics and representatives of Nigeria's penal system to overcome the human rights abuses that occur in prisons. Delegates from 25 nations gathered in the Nigerian capital 21-24 February for the Fifth International CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants) Conference on Human Rights, Criminal Justice and Prison Reform.
CURE is an international prison reform organisation based in Washington DC. It has chapters across the United States and became a global group in 2001 with chapters in 20 African nations and one in Brazil and in India.
Ike described the unhealthy, unsanitary and sometimes violent conditions in Nigeria's 49 prisons - many of them built in the 1920s and 1930s under British colonial rule when there were 20 million Nigerians, compared to 150 million today.
Eighty per cent of Nigeria’s 60,000 prisoners spend an average three to five years in pre-trial detention. Most are too poor to afford counsel or the bribes necessary to obtain medical care or family visits, he said.
But Ike is not without hope, noting that Nigeria's Christians believe in a merciful God. The organisation of chaplains he founded in Nigeria in 1994 has 300 Catholic chaplains who try to exemplify God's mercy as they visit detainees, he said. The group, World Catholic Prison Chaplains, also fields pastoral workers in every African country, he told ENI.
"There is a growing movement in the Catholic church in Africa that prison chaplaincy is at the heart of the apostolate of Christ," said Ike, who directs the Catholic Institute for Development, Justice and Peace in Enugu, Nigeria.
Another speaker at the conference said the Catholic Church plays a major role in monitoring abuses in Brazilian jails. "Unfortunately torture is everywhere, everyday,” said Oblate Brother Jose de Jesus Filho. An attorney, Filho directs prison pastoral care for the Brazilian Catholic Bishops Conference.
A half million Brazilians are incarcerated in 5,000 prisons and jails, the majority overcrowded, Filho said. Some 5,500 Catholic volunteers visit prisoners each week, attending to their spiritual needs, but also listening and observing reports of abuse. It is important to see inmates in their admission cells, their cell block and in the infirmary, Filho said. "As pastoral assistants we visit jails on a daily basis and try to prevent torture in this way. Our presence lets jail administrators know they could be prosecuted."
In the United States, prison reform advocate Jean Bassinger has supported prisoners’ rights for nearly 40 years. From her home in Des Moines, Iowa she now advocates for prison reform with Iowa legislators and Department of Corrections officials.
Bassinger, a United Methodist, and a retired nurse, has long lobbied on behalf of women prisoners, some of whom she has seen brought to hospitals in shackles and belly chains even as they were about to go into labour.
"It’s important that people understand that folks in our prisons are for the most part ordinary people who come from disadvantaged sectors of society and have no access to the justice system. Our prisons are not set up to rehabilitate them," she told ENI. Churches ought to get involved with the families of those who are being released, who lack jobs and often the skills for work, she said.
Pastor Vincent Omegba of the Redeemed Church of God, a Pentecostal church in Denver, Colorado, has opened a half-way house for ex-convicts. Omegba, a Nigerian native and former lawyer, said Denver prison officials are beginning to see that "the approach of faith-based groups is more effective than many other rehabilitation efforts."
Churches must go "intentionally" to prisons, he said. "Protestant churches especially should be more engaged in prison ministry and rehabilitation." Churches need to budget for the work and train people to do it, Omegba said.
[With acknowledgements to ENInews. ENInews, formerly Ecumenical News International, is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]