Tuesday 8 May 2012
By Denis Fitzgerald
Kairos Catholic Journal
AROUND 60 members of the Society of St Vincent de Paul gathered in Melbourne on Saturday 5 May to consider how best to meet the needs of those who are caught up in the criminal justice system.
Several speakers outlined key features of the justice system in Victoria.
Fr Joe Caddy, Chief Executive Officer of CatholicCare Melbourne, and himself a prison chaplain, endorsed the view of Fr John Brosnan (1919 – 2003) that many of those in prison today are ‘more sinned against than sinned’.
Drawing on the 2011 Social Justice Statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops, Building Bridges not Walls, Fr Joe reflected that a truly safe society will be built through stronger families and communities that support children more effectively; and through political debate that takes the populist heat out of the issue, considers the effectiveness of alternatives to prison, and balances the allocation of resources rather than concentrating on expensive prison capacity.
Violet Lotter from VACRO provided inspiring and useful information on their programs to assist prisoners and their families. These included pre and post-release prisoner support; mentoring for women leaving prison or on Community Service Orders; support for families and children of prisoners; etc. Violet presented an insightful analysis of the impact of imprisonment on children and on families.
Daniel Clements, manager of the Brosnan Centre at Jesuit Social Services, focused on engagement with young offenders. Daniel highlighted the small numbers of young people who are under youth justice supervision – just 0.3% of 10-17 year olds in Victoria. But he emphasised the need for us, as a society, to take steps as early as possible to prevent these young people becoming part of the system: almost half of this group enter supervision before the age of 15; and one third have been in the child protection system.
Prison ministry is grounded in the Society’s history. St Vincent de Paul (1551 – 1660) was himself imprisoned, and, later, ministered to men and women in prison and led the cause of prison reform in France. Blessed Frederick Ozanam (1813 – 1854), the founder of the Society, also engaged in prison ministry.
The Vincentian Prison Visitation Ministry in Victoria has for the past seven years engaged members of the Society in a range of ministries, varying with the need at the different prisons throughout the State. Outgoing coordinator of this Ministry, Austin Byrne, outlined its key features. These include: visiting with prisoners; a program to engage children who accompany a parent on prison visits; a contact and referral service in the visitors centre; and supporting the chaplaincy team in worship and fellowship in the prison. This specialised Ministry complements the support that local St Vincent de Paul Conferences provide to the families of prisoners, and their engagement with people who have left prison.
Many ideas and opportunities emerged, both for services of various kinds, and for work to build more just structures.
The Vincentian ministry could utilise more volunteers; there are openings for volunteers within Jesuit Social Services programs, including mentoring for young offenders from ethnic communities, and assistance to learner drivers at Dandenong; and fundraising is an ever-present need.
Several speakers emphasised keeping ourselves informed, and the importance of speaking out to friends, to politicians and to the media to correct the distortions around crime and punishment: there is indeed crime, which needs to be taken very seriously, but police data indicates that Victoria is quite a safe place, and the rate of crime has fallen significantly over the past decade. We should not let stridency and unbalanced publicity distort our political priorities, or prevent us adopting policies of prevention and support that would truly build a safer society. Catholic Social Services Victoria urged the Victorian Government to take a sensible approach to its policy of abolition of suspended sentences and called on it to avoid any steps that would increase levels of imprisonment at the cost of a more just and safer Victoria.
Support for prisoners and for a better system of criminal justice are at the heart of the Gospels’ teaching, and of the Church’s response over the centuries. The St Vincent de Paul Society has a proud place in that tradition. As a result of this forum, members should be better able to see the face of Christ in those who are imprisoned, and to work to meet the needs of all who suffer because of crime and our response to it.
• Only six per cent of adult male prisoners have completed secondary school or a trade
• indigenous Australians are 17 times more likely to be in prison
• mental and physical health problems, drug usage, unemployment prior to prison – these are the characteristics of so many of the 5,000 adults in Victorian prisons
By Denis Fitzgerald is the Executive Director, Catholic Social Services Victoria.