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Saint Rita, Mental Health, and Mass Incarceration

by Jeremy Hiers, OSA

Prisons are often named “Correctional Facilities” yet have limited capacity to offer “correction” by way of restoration and healing.  

According to the American Psychological Association, a significant portion of those who commit crime have a mental illness; while others develop such conditions during incarceration.  As a result, 64 percent of jail inmates, 54 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners have mental health concerns[1] leading the prison system to be nicknamed modern day “asylums.”  

Research consistently shows incarceration not only causes mental health concerns, it also perpetuates and worsens it.  Correctional facilities largely fail to adequately treat mental health conditions. Disconnection from family, loss of personal autonomy, boredom, lack of purpose, and continual threat of violence all contribute to negative mental health outcomes.[2]  In addition, approximately 6-8% of the prison population is in solitary confinement in cells the size of a parking space (an entirely different level of inhumane treatment), resulting in approximately half of all suicides among incarcerated people.[3]  

To make matters worse, studies show that prison sentences are unlikely to deter future crime, as prison environments enable inmates to learn more effective crime strategies and desensitizes them to the threat of future imprisonment.[4]  

These conditions disproportionately impact the poor and minorities.  About 40 percent of those behind bars are African American though they make up less than 14% of the U.S. population.  Hispanics make up 20 percent of the prison population though they represent less than 17% of the U.S. population.  Research also demonstrates minorities are more likely to suffer disparities in mental health treatment as well.[5]  80% of the incarcerated earned less than $15K per year prior to arrest.[6]  Consequently, due to the retributive vice rehabilitative nature of confinement only 20% of those who are released from prison end up earning an annual salary of more than $15,000.[7]

This situation really impact all of us.

Half of Americans have had a loved one incarcerated.[8]  The rate of U.S. incarceration has increased 500% since 1980.  Yet, two out of every three people released from prison end up committing another crime.  Further, children of the incarcerated are six times more likely to face incarceration.[9]  All of these factors perpetuate the cycle of crime and its impacts on all of us.[10]

Saint Rita Offers an Alternative Approach

The U.S. system of Mass Incarceration has historically been based on a model of retribution (punishment for crimes committed against the law) rather than a restorative model which takes a more wholistic view of the harm done by crime and the systemic issues that led to that crime.  Where Retributive Justice seeks only to punish the offender according to the letter of the law, Restorative Justice seeks to heal and reconcile all those impacted by crime (victims, families, the community, and the offender).  Such a system is reactive and doesn’t focus on preventing the crime to begin with.

Saint Rita was caught in a retributive model of justice as she married into a family at constant war with another family.  At the murder of her own husband, her in-laws and children reacted with a desire for revenge.  Saint Rita created peace by helping them to look at the issue more holistically and discover how violence only begets more violence, causing everyone in the community to suffer.  As highlighted earlier, the retributive model of criminal justice and the inhumane and appalling conditions of correctional facilities in the U.S. only returns more “violence” for violence and perpetuates the factors that lead to crime and causes further harm to society, especially the family of those who are incarcerated.  As she did in the 15th century, Saint Rita points us to Jesus’ message of peace, reconciliation, and healing as an alternative response to crime. 

I believe Saint Augustine, whose life and teachings inspired Saint Rita would agree:

Clearly, it is not by harshness or by severity, or by overbearing methods, that social evils are removed. It is by education rather than by formal commands, by persuasion rather than by threats. This is the way to deal with people in general. Severity, however, should be employed only against the sins of the few.

Saint Augustine (Letter 22, 5)

On December 10th the United Nations and the Augustinians celebrate Human Rights Day, a day to remember the inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to as a human being (regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or “other status”).[11]  While the incarcerated lose certain rights granted to citizens (such as the ability to vote), they are still entitled to be treated with dignity as human beings.  This invites us to pray and work for more humane and restorative forms of criminal justice in our country.

Through the intercession of Saint Rita, we pray for more human and rehabilitative forms of criminal justice that break the cycle of crime rather than perpetuate it.


[1] American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/10/incarceration.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/12/08/solitary_symposium/.

[4] U.S. Department of Justice, https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/247350.pdf.

[5] American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/10/incarceration.

[6] The Brookings Institute, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/es_20180314_looneyincarceration_final.pdf

[7] The Brookings Institute, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/es_20180314_looneyincarceration_final.pdf.  

[8] Cornell University, https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/03/study-nearly-half-americans-have-had-family-member-jailed-imprisoned

[9] National Institute of Justice, https://www.nij.gov/journals/278/Pages/impact-of-incarceration-on-dependent-children.aspx

[10] Bureau of Justice Statistics, https://bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/2018-update-prisoner-recidivism-9-year-follow-period-2005-2014 and Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/research/recidivism_and_reentry/.

[11] United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/observances/human-rights-day.

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