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An Augustinian Pastoral Response to Mass Incarceration

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  With 2.2 million people currently incarcerated, this represents an increase of nearly 500% over the past 30 years.  Yet, two out of every three people who are released from incarceration will commit another crime and return to prison or jail.[1]  These alarming trends have been labeled by many as an epidemic.  As a Bishop in the 5th century, St. Augustine often advocated for mercy on those who are guilty of crime.  I therefore posit that it is well within the Augustinian tradition to advocate for and lend ministerial support to a more rehabilitative system of corrections in the U.S.  I will explore various aspects of St. Augustine’s response to crime in the 5th century compared to the factors that contribute to crime in the 21st century.  In the course of this discussion I will propose ways the Augustinians of today might respond to the epidemic of mass incarceration in the U.S.

While reflecting on the nature of his own sins in Book II of The Confessions, St. Augustine tells of a man named Catiline who committed murder.  Catiline was assumed by others to have killed only for love of killing.  Augustine, however, asserts that Catiline was motivated not solely by love of killing, but rather by the desire for power, honors and wealth.[2]  Augustine’s reflection on Catiline invites us to reflect on the causes of crime in our own society today.  Do murderers murder people for love of murder?  Do drug dealers sell drugs for love of selling drugs?  Or are people guilty of these crimes seeking, like Catiline, some other benefit such as wealth, safety, or security in an unjust and unstable world?  Benefits that would seem perfectly reasonable and human if sought in a better more lawful way.  This begs the question:  have these people been given an adequate chance to seek these benefits in a lawful way?

While our current criminal justice system in the U.S. considers intent when determining how to punish and sentence people guilty of crimes, it gives little consideration of the underlying causes behind that intent.  It follows that any type of response to the epidemic of mass incarceration in our country must therefore examine the factors leading up to incarceration, how those factors influence (or fail to influence) the method by which criminal justice is applied in the U.S., and how society reintegrates those who are released having completed their sentence.

Factors leading up to incarceration

Crime in the U.S. is undeniably linked with poverty and lack of education and disproportionately impacts certain populations of people.  80% of those who are incarcerated earned less than $15,000 per year in the two years leading up to their incarceration, 56% of which had no annual earnings at all.[3]  Almost 70% of inmates do not have a high school diploma.[4] These two factors have contributed to what is called the Poverty to Prison Pipeline, a way to name systemic injustice that disproportionately impacts minorities.  Currently, 1 in 3 men of African descent and 1 in 7 men of Latin American descent in the U.S. face incarceration at some point in their lives.  This is compared to only 1 in 17 Caucasian men.[5]

The Poverty to Prison pipeline likely existed in some form during Augustine’s time as well.  There was a wide gap between the rich and poor, where only a small minority benefitted from the riches of the country and the work of the laborers.[6]  The really poor in Augustine’s time were the little tenant farmers and seasonal workers who hired themselves out as harvesters to the more powerful and elite[7] (much like workers without an education are forced to do today).  This gap became so wide that many in the 4th and 5th centuries many were forced to sell themselves into slavery to avoid starvation.[8]  Likewise, many people today “sell themselves” into criminal lifestyles and gangs in order to avoid “starvation” for safety and a sense of purpose and belonging caused by the barriers that prevent them from flourishing in our society.  In Augustine’s time, criminals were often “reduced to the ranks of beggars” through crippling fines, [9] not unlike the costly fines applied today to those accused of crimes and are already poor.

Likewise, in the 5th century education was also out of reach for many.  A poor person could not become a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher without the generosity of a rich patron.[10] Post-secondary education in the U.S. today is becoming increasingly more out of reach for the populations most susceptible to crime.  The cost of education has risen 36% since the 1980s.[11]  Further, since 1980 the average cost of public college tuition increased three times faster than household income and cost of living/consumer prices.[12] Yet, spending on education has only increased a third of what spending on corrections has.[13]

According to van Bavel, Augustine’s teaching in response to the gap between rich and poor was that all people are equal in God’s eyes.  Creation is given to all “without distinction” and therefore all goods are in principle “common goods.”  Since all created goods belong to God, everything every person has is on loan from God.  All people are “beggars” in God’s sight.  The primary way for all beggars to repay their debt to God is to help others who are less fortunate.[14]

Augustinians today participate in restoring the balance by providing material needs for the poor through numerous ministries including, among many, the Villanova University Service Day projects and the Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor.   Augustinians can respond more directly to the problem of mass incarceration by targeting such donations and service projects to populations of people who are particularly vulnerable to crime, such as gang infested neighborhoods with children and high rates of school dropouts.

Yet as the old adage affirms, “If you give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  If you teach the man how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”  Those who are incarcerated often suffer from having less education than the rest of society.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the aforementioned statistics demonstrate incarceration began to spike in the 1980s around the same time that education became less accessible to the poor.  The Augustinians have a rich tradition of providing education with numerous schools throughout the U.S.  Augustinians can also follow in the spirit of Augustine by seeking opportunities to provide more access to educational opportunities for the less privileged in the cities they already serve with education ministries.

Method of Corrections in the United States

Two out of every three people who are incarcerated in the U.S. will likely commit another crime and be reincarcerated at some point in their lives.  This merits evaluation of the corrections system itself, which continues to be retributive rather than rehabilitative.  One in nine incarcerated people are now serving a life sentence without any recognition of their potential for rehabilitation and reintegration into society.  This represents a five-fold increase since 1984, with nearly a third of these serving life without any chance of parole.[15]

Further, for those who will be released, the criminal justice system does little to help bridge the educational and income gap so closely linked to crime. Only a little over 25% of state inmates report having earned a GED while incarcerated.[16] Consequently, only 20% of those who are released from prison end up earning an annual salary of more than $15,000.[17]

Contrary to the retributive culture of the U.S., Zumkeller notes how Augustine called for gentleness and mercy in response to those who are guilty of crimes.  Augustine often referred to how the Savior once shielded an adulteress from punishment in order to give her time for penance and conversion and considered it a duty of his episcopal office to petition secular courts for pardon for guilty persons.  Augustine once implored an Imperial Tribune to punish Donatist fanatics who had brutally murdered a Catholic priest not with the death penalty, but with prison or forced labor “in order to reform them.”[18] Augustine’s advocacy for the criminals extends to the point of breaking up and melting sacred vessels in order to use the proceeds to “ransom captives” and be able to support the great number of poor of his episcopal city.[19] This would be analogous to the Church of today raising funds to offer bail or adequate representation at trial to the guilty. 

It is therefore well within the Augustinian tradition to advocate for a more rehabilitative vice retributive criminal justice system in the United States.  Specifically, Augustinians could advocate against those laws and practices that deny the potential for rehabilitation and only perpetuate the gap between rich and poor.  This includes the death penalty, life sentences, and practices such as solitary confinement which are used strictly for retribution and punishment rather than rehabilitation.  Augustinians could also advocate for increased educational and vocational development opportunities that seek to rehabilitate those who are guilty of crimes.

In addition to advocacy, the Augustinians can also contribute to the rehabilitation of the incarcerated through its own Prison/Jail Ministry.  Given its strong backbone in education, the Order can seek ways to expand educational programs that go inside jails/prisons such as the undergraduate degree program that Villanova offers at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania.  

Further, the Augustinians share a strong charism in community building.  Prisons are harsh environments not conducive to rehabilitation.  Inmates are threatened on a daily basis with violence, strife, and loss of the few privileges they have to better themselves.  Based on my own ministerial experience, one of the most valuable gifts that any minister inside the jail/prison environment can offer inmates is the gift of creating a community of support among themselves.  Augustinians have a rich tradition of building community that witnesses against many of the societal injustices that lead to mass incarceration and punitive prison/jail environments; namely communities founded around the common good in lieu of distinctions between people in the external things of life.  Through in-jail/prison ministries, Augustinians can help inmates see the potential for creation of a community of faith among themselves as necessary for their rehabilitation and enabling them with the wisdom of the Augustinian tradition to do so.

Evaluating the method of re-entry in the United States

As has been demonstrated, the current method of corrections in the U.S. does little to help break the cycle of crime that results from poverty and lack of education in the U.S.  Based on my own ministerial experience, the causes of high recidivism among those released from jail/prison tend to fall into three main categories:  substance abuse caused primarily by unaddressed mental health disorders during their time of incarceration; finding a job due to the negative stigma applied to those who have served time as well as lack of educational and job training skills afforded to them while incarcerated; and limited housing opportunities.

The Augustinians can leverage their community charism by creating communities of mutual support for those walking out of jail/prison.  The Augustinian Adeodatus Prison Ministry offers this type of connection today where those who are coming out of incarceration are invited to attend weekly meetings where they come and connect with others who share with them the challenges of reintegration after incarceration.  Are there opportunities to create more such communities of support for those seeking an second chance at life outside of incarceration?


In the City of God St. Augustine declares “A state which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves”[20]  Augustine did not deny the need for a criminal justice system.  However, Augustine reminds us that we are all in debt to God, so we must love those who are in debt to society.  This demands a more comprehensive look at how criminal justice is implemented in the U.S. to ensure the full scope of injustice is addressed.  It is evident when one looks at the factors that lead to crime, the method of correction in the U.S., and how our culture reintegrates convicted criminals at the completion of their sentence, there is a need for justice that extends beyond only discussion on how to punish those guilty of crimes.  Yet, the U.S. criminal justice system still largely only seeks to punish rather than rehabilitate while simultaneously failing to address the larger systemic injustices that lead to crime.

Any ministry or advocacy for those who are impacted by incarceration therefore requires a kind of mercy that is radically countercultural, one that recognizes that people incarcerated for crimes are also victims of unjust economic systems, unjust education policies, and systemic racism that perpetuate the cycle crime.  Such mercy involves seeing not just the evil of the crime, but the potential of the person to be rehabilitated and the need for systemic change to that which prevents rehabilitation.  I have argued that such countercultural mercy is well within the Augustinian tradition and there are many opportunities ranging from education to jail/prison ministry to simple presence to those susceptible to criminal lifestyles are all within reach of many of the places the Augustinians are present today.

[1] The Sentencing Project. “Criminal Justice Facts.” (accessed June 24, 2019).

[2] Confessions, II, 5.

[3] The Brookings Institute. “Work and opportunity before and after incarceration.”, 8 (accessed June 24, 2019).

[4] The Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Education and Correctional Populations.” BJS.Gov., 1 (accessed June 24, 2019).

[5] The Sentencing Project. “Criminal Justice Facts.” (accessed June 24, 2019).

[6] van Bavel, T.J., “Augustine’s Option for the Poor:  Preaching and Practice.” Secretariat for Peace and Justice Series (2004), 5-6.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid., 8.

[9] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Oakland, CA: 2013), 13.

[10] T.J. van Bavel, “Augustine’s Option for the Poor: Preaching and Practice,” 7.

[11] The National Center for Education Statistics. “Tuition costs of colleges and universities.” NCES.ED.GOV. (accessed June 23, 2019).

[12] The Government Accountability Office. “Higher Education:  Tuition Increasing Faster than Household Income and Public College’s Cost.” GAO.GOV. (accessed June 25, 2019).

[13] Department of Education.  “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education.” (accessed June 25, 2019).

[14] T.J. van Bavel, “Augustine’s Option for the Poor: Preaching and Practice,” 12-14.

[15] The Sentencing Project. “Criminal Justice Facts.” (accessed June 24, 2019).

[16] The Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Education and Correctional Populations.” BJS.Gov., 1 (accessed June 24, 2019).

[17] The Brookings Institute. “Work and opportunity before and after incarceration.”, 7 (accessed June 24, 2019). 

[18] Adolar Zumkeller, “Characteristics of a Pastor According to Augustine” in Augustinian Heritage 37:2 (1991), 254-255. 

[19] Ibid., 253-255.

[20] City of God, IV, 4.

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