“Remember those who are in prison, as if in prison with them” (Heb 13:3). When Jesus began his public ministry in his home town of Nazareth, he quoted from the prophet Isaiah that he had come to proclaim liberty to captives (Lk 4:18). Society has good reasons to keep some people incarcerated, but they too have a claim on our mercy. When we might be tempted to withhold our care from them, it would be good to recall how many saints have spent time in jail. Jesus himself experienced this condition, thereby making the prison cell sacred ground. His good news is meant for all people regardless of their circumstances.
There are practical challenges when it comes to visiting prisoners, but the Church does have a ministry to them and properly-trained volunteers are always needed. In addition, we might look for ways to help those whose spouses or parents are incarcerated. They suffer not only the pain of separation but the stigma of guilt.
We can also exercise this work of mercy by speaking up for the dignity of prisoners. Our prisons are overcrowded and conditions can be dehumanizing for prisoners and guards alike. We must recognize that even those who are guilty of the most heinous crimes possess human dignity. Our Lord said, “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Those who committed brutal crimes and have been imprisoned are certainly “the least” in the eyes of society. Those who were most marginalized were the special recipients of Christ’s merciful outreach two thousand years ago and he wants us, the members of his Body, to continue his mission.
This work of mercy does not end when a convict is released. There are programs of restorative justice to help former prisoners integrate back into society, and these provide opportunities for us to carry out this work. Job training and employment can help men and women get a fresh start, and even in informal ways we should look for ways to welcome them into our parish communities. We must be realistic enough to recognize that some ex-convicts have very deep problems that cannot be dismissed with the wave of a hand; their path will sometimes be slow and laborious, but we should commit ourselves to walking the journey with them and helping them not to give up hope.
Another important group of people who stand in need of the mercy of this work are juvenile offenders. These young people have found themselves behind bars because something or someone has failed them. We should not be naïve: working with young offenders requires discretion and training. There will be heartbreaks and setbacks. But if it is a tragedy when any human being stops hoping, it is doubly so when that human being is standing on the threshold of adult life.
Finally, we can expand this work of mercy to embrace those who are imprisoned by the circumstances of life. The elderly shut-ins in our parishes, the residents of homes for the aged, and those who are trapped in addictions of various kinds are incarcerated in different ways. Their isolation is less dramatic than if they were literally in prison, but for that very reason they are deserving of our care. And, because they live in our neighborhoods and may be members of our own family, we have easy access to them.
We read in the Acts of the Apostles that once when Paul and Silas were in prison they were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25). May our hymns of praise to the God who sets us free reach the ears of our sisters and brothers in prison!