The letter from Ed, an inmate at the Newton Correctional Facility, arrived during Advent last year addressed to Father Tony Herold, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Newton. A donation of $100 was enclosed. “We ask that this money be given so that at-risk, orphaned and sick children be given Christmas presents. If you cannot do this, we ask that it be given to a local food shelter. It isn’t much, we know, but we would like something else. We gathered this money from a year’s worth of donations by men that are paid between $0.27 and $0.60 an hour. We challenge the parish to outdo us. We gave what may seem little to others, but to us it is a lot. … We challenge the other parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish to donate $2,000 for the same cause that our money goes to …”
Father Herold said the letter, which arrived in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, deeply touched him and the parishioners, who honored Ed’s request. He and his fellow inmates are serving time in a medium security facility that provides a Sexual Offender Treatment Program for men who have committed sexual offenses. Like the rest of us, the inmates are sinners who sometimes manage to emulate saints.
Pope Francis, in a talk with inmates at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia on Sept. 27, 2015, said: “All of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from. May the knowledge of that fact inspire us to live in solidarity, to support one another and seek the best for others” (https://tinyurl.com/64p9yccz).
These final days of Respect for Life Month serve as a reminder of Catholic Social Teaching, which calls us to “work to uphold the dignity of every human life.” That phrase comes from the 2021 Respect for Life Month statement of Bishop Joseph F. Naumann, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
As of Oct. 22, 7,933 individuals were incarcerated in the Iowa Department of Corrections institutions. The capacity is 6,993. The DOC reports prison releases and admissions declined sharply in Fiscal Year 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the responsive measures that the agency took. Conversely, county jail populations increased as inmates spent more time waiting to be processed into the prison system.
Racial disparities in Iowa’s prisons are among the highest in the nation. Iowa Public Radio, citing analysis by the advocacy group The Sentencing Project, said, “Black Iowans are incarcerated at 9.3 times the rate of white Iowans, a slight improvement from 2016, when the rate was 11.1 to 1.” Equally troubling, “Black Iowans continue to make up 25 percent of the state’s prison population, despite being just 4 percent of the total population” (https://tinyurl.com/kmmap8fs).
Many factors merge to feed into this injustice, according to the IPR report, ranging from persistent poverty to lack of opportunities and compounded by government policies and attitudes that “locked Black Iowans out of jobs, mortgages and entire communities.”
Addressing racial disparities requires a separate editorial, but this one aims to emphasize our responsibility as faithful citizens to work to uphold the dignity of all inmates. We are called to pay attention to the actions of our Iowa Legislature, advocate for policies that treat the accused and convicted individuals with fairness and equity, pray for inmates and their victims or engage in prison ministry when it becomes possible again. Specifically, we can:
• Support. Be a good friend/fellow parishioner for families with a loved one who is incarcerated. They may be hesitant talking about it with other people, but a compassionate, caring, non-judgmental friend can be very helpful.
• Study. Read the 2020 Justice Advisory Board Three-Year Criminal and Juvenile Justice Plan Executive Summary (https://tinyurl.com/rj4dufpf). The priorities to be addressed are racial justice, mental health, community-based corrections and alternatives to incarceration, and sex offenders.
• Advocate. The Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC) advocates for policies that respect life and the dignity of the human person and applies the principles of Catholic social teaching to critical issues of the day. Keep track of state legislation through the ICC (iowacatholicconference.org), which provides legislative alerts that allow us to respond quickly.
• Encourage. Ask your judicial district (www.iowacourts.gov/iowa-courts/district-court) to support Circles of Support and Accountability for persons who have been released from correctional facilities.
• Become a pen pal. Sister Dolores Schuh, CHM, writes weekly to her pen pal on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, and sends birthday and Christmas cards to every inmate on death row there. Nancy Stone, a parishioner of St. Anthony Parish in Davenport, recently became a pen pal through the Order of Malta, which sponsors a prison pen pal program (https://tinyurl.com/4fd2ynn4).
• Pray. Invite your parish to include a prayer for persons incarcerated in correctional centers in Iowa and for the victims of crime. Pray for healing, repentance and forgiveness.
At the end of Ed’s letter, he acknowledged that Father Herold would do what is best regarding the inmates’ challenge to parishioners. Ed thanked the pastor for sending homilies each week. “The guys and I enjoy them tremendously. Peace and Blessings this Advent!”
Let us “work to uphold the dignity of every human life.”
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor