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St. Rita was contemplating the passion of Jesus Christ. When she suffered she looked to Christ for understanding and guidance. Stained Glass window at the National Shrine of Saint Rita. Photo by Fr. Dan McLaughlin, OSA.

Saint Rita Unites Us in Prayer for Restorative Justice

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  Incarcerating around 639 people per 100,000, it is 13% higher than the next highest country in the world, El Salvador at 564 inmates per 100,000.[1]  This represents nearly a 500% increase in the U.S. since 1980.  Today, nearly half of all Americans have had a loved one face incarceration.[2]  Yet, incarceration practices of the United States has proven to be ineffective.  Two out of every three people released from prison still end up committing another crime (known as recidivism).[3]  Children of the incarcerated are six times more likely to face incarceration themselves.[4]  All of these factors perpetuate the impact of crime on all of us.

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 (such as mental health, systemic poverty, educational disparity, etc).  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).  In the strictest sense, Retributive Justice seeks to punish someone who commits a crime through incarceration of a certain length as calculated from a formula (e.g., a certain crime equals X number of years in prison).  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 Father Michael Di Gregorio, OSA highlights in his book The Precious Pearl:  The Story of Saint Rita of Cascia, 

“She reminded the gathered family members that antipathy and stubbornness had for generations caused suffering and pain not only to those they loved most.  It was shameful enough that their hostility was a sin against God, but it was a disgrace to the honor of the Mancini name as well.  Finally, Rita spoke of her own personal suffering prolonged and intensified now, by the refusal of the nuns to receive her on their account.”[5]

Fr. Michael Di Gregorio, OSA

The retributive nature of criminal justice and the inhumane and appalling conditions of correctional facilities in the U.S. only returns more “violence for violence” without sufficient consideration of the systemic causes that lead to the crime or ways to break the cycle perpetuated by the aforementioned recidivism rate.  As the aforementioned statistics highlight, we all suffer as a result.

As she did in the 15th century, Saint Rita invites us to transcend any form of “stubbornness” or “antipathy” towards the causes of this system and points us to Jesus’ message of peace, reconciliation, and healing as an alternative response to crime.  Such a response can only be made by taking a more wholistic look at the issue, inclusive of the root causes of crime.

Praying for Restorative Justice Today

Throughout the 2021-2022 year, the Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor and the National Shrine of Saint Rita has embarked on an initiative to do just this.  On the second Saturday of each month, the Shrine devoted its 5:00pm Vigil Mass to prayer for all those impacted by the U.S. system of Mass Incarceration.  Each month highlights a different root cause behind the issue we face today.  What follows is a summary of the theme we focused on each month which was generally tied to a larger national or international holiday or theme. Homilies for each of the Masses can be found by downloading the Augustinian Journey app.

Praying for Healing of Those Impacted by Addiction

September marked National Recovery Month which seeks to raise awareness of newer evidence-based treatment and recovery practices.  The Shrine therefore devoted the Reconciliation Mass for September to praying for those impacted by addiction.  65% of the U.S. prison population has a Substance Abuse Disorder.  Yet, only a small percentage of those who need treatment receive it while incarcerated. [6]  Fortunately judges and lawmakers are becoming increasingly aware of newer treatment and recovery practices, often choosing sentencing guidelines that enable those who suffer from addiction to enter treatment centers in lieu of serving jail or prison time.  Through the intercession of Saint Rita we prayed this trend will continue.

Praying for an End to Violence

In October, we highlighted the issue of rising gun violence in our nation.  The U.S. relies almost exclusively on incarceration in response to violent crime.  October 2nd marked the International Day of Non-Violence in which the United Nations seeks to raise awareness and education around the principles of non-violence to promote a culture of peace, tolerance, and understanding.[7]  Saint Rita’s approach to violence and modern-day research both consistently points us in this direction.  Research shows that as people age, their risk for violence decreases,[8] leading us to question if long prison sentences for youth who commit crime is effective or necessary.  

Today, 80% of federal prisoners are under the age of 50, 35% are under the age of 36.[9]  Over the past two decades, 19 states have successfully decreased both imprisonment and crime rates using community approaches to crime prevention as alternative approaches to incarceration.  New Jersey saw the largest drop-in crime rates (30%) following a 37% decrease in incarceration rates.[10]  While incarceration is still a very necessary deterrent to crime and a way to protect society from those prone to violent acts, there is substantial evidence which shows we should also be investing in more restorative ways of addressing violence.  Through the intercession of Saint Rita we prayed for an increase in restorative methods to include community-driven safety strategies, youth interventions, and a public health approach to violence.

Praying for an End to Poverty  

Each November as we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas, we are often reminded of all those who go without basic needs such as food and shelter.  In November we therefore highlighted the link between systemic poverty and mass incarceration.  Criminologists consistently point to economic and educational inequality as key contributors to crime in communities.[11]  Incarceration does little to fix this contributor.  80% of the incarcerated earned less than $15K per year prior to arrest.  70% did not have a High School diploma.[12]  This is often referred to as the “poverty-to-prison” pipeline.  Yet, over the past 33 years, spending for K-12 education has increased only a third of what spending on corrections has.[13]  Consequently, only a little over 25% of state inmates report having earned a GED while incarcerated.[14]  Only 20% of those released from prison therefore end up earning an annual salary of more than $15K.[15]  Through the intercession of Saint Rita we prayed for a more restorative system that helps those who are released from prison people break free from the chains of poverty rather than perpetuate it.

Praying for More Restorative Practices within Correctional Institutions

Closely linked to the issue of perpetuating systemic poverty and the aforementioned recidivism rate are the conditions by which incarcerated people live.  On December 10th the United Nations celebrated 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”).[16]  While the incarcerated often 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.

In December we therefore highlighted the practices of modern-day prisons and jails.  Prisons are often named “Correctional Facilities” yet often have limited capacity to offer “correction” by way of rehabilitation.  Many who commit crime have a mental illness and others develop conditions during incarceration.  54 percent of state prisoners have mental health concerns[17] leading the prison system to be nicknamed modern day “asylums.”  Research also consistently shows that prisons fail to adequately treat mental health conditions, often perpetuating them and making them worse.  60% of the state prisoners are housed more than 100 miles from their family and less than a third of them receive a visit from a loved one in a typical month.[18]  Disconnection from family, loss of personal autonomy, boredom, lack of purpose, and continual threat of violence all contribute to negative mental health outcomes.  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.[19]  Further, approximately 6-8% of the prison population is in solitary confinement in cells the size of a parking space, accounting for nearly half of all suicides among incarcerated people.[20]  Incarcerating people under such conditions is literally returning “violence for violence.”  Through the intercession of Saint Rita we prayed that prisons and jails evolve to become more rehabilitative than punitive.

Praying for At-Risk Youth

After highlighting the wider systemic issues such as poverty, education, and unjust incarceration practices which perpetuate the factors that lead to crime, in January we began to take a closer look at the specific groups of people who are most impacted. As mentioned earlier, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  It also incarcerates far more young people than any other developed country.[21]  

On December 30, 2021, President Biden proclaimed January 2022 as National Mentoring Month citing that every child in America has the right to go as far as their dreams will take them and those dreams are rarely reached alone. [22]  During this month we were called to honor those who mentor young people.  In the context of Mass Incarceration, it can also serve as an opportunity to raise awareness of the need for mentors to help young people who are at risk of crime navigate the hurdles of poverty, educational disadvantage, and mental health that often lead them to criminal lifestyles. 

In January the Shrine therefore highlighted at-risk youth and the impact these systemic issues have on young people during their formative years of life and their chances of successfully transitioning into adulthood.  35% of federal prisoners are under the age of 36.[23]  Individuals with poor health are at higher risk for incarceration (e.g., as mentioned previously those suffering with addiction are often incarcerated rather than treated). [24]  46% of detained juveniles have urgent medical needs, 70% have at least 1 psychiatric disorder.[25]  Criminologists point to “low social cohesion” and “social disorganization” as root causes of crime.[26]  Incarceration only perpetuates this by continuing to destroy critical social bonds during formative years:  60% of the state prisoners are housed more than 100 miles from their family and less than a third of them receive a visit from a loved one in a typical month.[27]  Further, the social stigma and economic disadvantages that young people face upon release contribute not only to higher rates of recidivism but also higher rates of fatal drug overdose, suicide, and post-traumatic stress.[28]   

Young people who have had a parent who was incarcerated face an even high risk.  Children of the incarcerated are six times more likely to face incarceration themselves.[29]  This is because, according to research conducted by Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, children whose parents were incarcerated are more likely to encounter significant hurdles transitioning into adulthood, including being charged with a felony (35% vs. 11.5%), dropping out of high school (25.5% vs. 5.0%), becoming a teenage parent (14.3% vs. 2.8%), experiencing financial strain (37.2% vs. 17.5%), and being socially isolated (24.5% vs. 9.4%).[30]  This further affirms the sentiment expressed in December when we established the link between modern incarceration practices and the mental health crisis.

As Saint Rita stepped in to mentor her children when they desired to return violence for violence by avenging the murder of their father, we prayed for an increase of programs that will help guide young people at risk of committing (or re-committing a crime).

Praying for an End to Systemic Racism

In November we recognized how the U.S. system of Mass Incarceration disproportionately impacts the poor.  In February, as the U.S. observed Black History Month, we took a closer look at the issue of Systemic Racism and how mass incarceration disproportionately impacts poor people of color.  Black U.S. citizens are incarcerated five times the rate of white U.S. citizens.[31]  The root causes are similar to the issues we had previously explored:  systemic poverty, addiction, educational inequality, etc. In February we prayed for an end to systemic inequality that is so prevalent within our justice system.

Praying for an End to Gender Inequality

In March we considered the unique challenges posed to women.  The number of women in prison has been increasing 50% that of men since 1980.[32]  Women are often subject to discrimination, lower pay, and fewer educational opportunities that heighten the impact of the aforementioned systemic issues on their lives.  Saint Rita who lived in the late 14th and early 15th centuries when women were often treated as second-class citizens could relate to many of these challenges.  In March we prayed through the intercession of Saint Rita for equality for women.

Praying for Those Seeking a Fair Second Chance

In April the nation celebrated Second Chance Month, a time which we are called to recognize the hurdles that formerly incarcerated people have to navigate to obtain a fair “second chance” once they are released from jail or prison.  Through the intercession of Saint Rita we prayed for systemic changes needed to ensure that those who have served their time are given a fair second chance through the resources and opportunities needed to truly become productive members of society and navigate around the systemic issues that led to the crime they committed to in the beginning.

Praying for Law Enforcement and Correctional Officers

We closed the year out in May with a recognition of the impact this system has had on all those who work in the criminal justice system, especially police officers and correctional officers who are on the front lines of the systemic poverty, educational disparity, and mental health crisis that leads to crime.  They are on the front lines when someone first commits a crime; they are on the front lines within correctional facilities as the conditions cause increased violence and mental health concerns; they are on the front lines when two out of three released commit another crime. It also happened to be the occasion of Mother’s Day and we reflected on all the mothers of those who are in law enforcement and corrections who worry about their son or daughter who goes to the front lines of crime and recidivism to keep the rest of us safe. Through the intercession of Saint Rita, a mother herself, we prayed for all those who continue to protect us from the impacts mass incarceration has on all of us.

Conclusion

We invite you to to listen to the homilies for each month of this series by downloading the Augustinian Journey app here. We look forward to continuing the dialogue and praying together for a more restorative form of criminal justice in the United States that truly takes a holistic view of the issue and moves towards a more restorative rather than retributive model of justice in the United States.

Saint Rita, Pray for Us!


[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/16/americas-incarceration-rate-lowest-since-1995/

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

[3] 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/. 

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

[5] Michael F. Di Gregorio, The Precious Pearl:  The Story of Saint Rita, Kindle Edition., Location 333.

[6] National Institute on Drug Abuse, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/criminal-justice

[7] The United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/observances/non-violence-day.

[8] Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/violence.html

[9] Federal Bureau of Prisons, https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_age.jsp

[10] Equal Justice Initiative, https://eji.org/news/study-finds-increased-incarceration-does-not-reduce-crime/

[11] Equal Justice Initiative, https://eji.org/news/study-finds-increased-incarceration-does-not-reduce-crime/.

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

[13] Department of Education.  “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education.”  Ed.gov.  https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/expenditures-corrections-education/brief.pdf (accessed June 22, 2018).

[14] The Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Education and Correctional Populations.” BJS.Gov. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ecp.pdf.

[15] The Brookings Institute. “Work and opportunity before and after incarceration.” Brookings.edu. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/es_20180314_looneyincarceration_final.pdf, 7 (accessed June 24, 2019). 

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

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

[18] Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/prisonvisits.html.

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

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

[21] National Institute of Health, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5260153/

[22] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/12/30/a-proclamation-on-national-mentoring-month-2022/

[23] Federal Bureau of Prisons, https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_age.jsp

[24] National Institute of Health, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5260153/

[25] National Institute of Health, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5260153/

[26] Equal Justice Initiative, https://eji.org/news/study-finds-increased-incarceration-does-not-reduce-crime/

[27] Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/prisonvisits.html

[28] National Institute of Health, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5260153/

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

[30] https://childandfamilypolicy.duke.edu/news/parental-incarceration-increases-childrens-risk-of-substance-abuse-anxiety-in-adulthood/

[31] https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/

[32] https://www.sentencingproject.org/issues/women/

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