“... I was in prison and you visited me.” Matthew 25:36

In the gospels, Christ specifies that visiting prisoners is one work of mercy that helps one get admitted into the kingdom of heaven. Judging, however, from the notoriously subhuman conditions in our prisons, taking care of prisoners would look to be the least of predominantly Christian Philippine society’s concerns. Not that it cares for the other works of mercy (clothing the naked, healing the sick, feeding the hungry) either.

It is this writer’s considered opinion that this is due to society’s underlying pre-modern philosophy that crime must be punished and prisons are places of punishment. If so, then cruelty to prisoners in the form of congested cells, starvation diets, corrupt guards, etc. make for appropriate punishment.

This would seem to be the underlying philosophy behind Secretary of Justice Jesus Remulla’s plan to build a “super-maximum” security prison as a solution to the congestion and shoddy security of the now old New Bilibid Prison. But could it be that Secretary Remulla is barking up the wrong tree?

Could be, because the more fundamental problem of our prison system is our outdated attitude and approach towards crime and punishment. Modern prisons are supposed to fix the psychological or psycho-social problems that lead criminals to commit the crimes they are in prison for. The idea is to enable prisoners, after they’ve served their time, to go back to mainstream society rehabilitated, hence productive.

Judging from the evident neglect by government, Church and civil society of the human right of prisoners to access physical and spiritual healing, it would seem like our prisons are designed more to confirm prisoners in their criminal state and harden them in crime than to fix whatever psychic problem might prevent them from seamlessly returning to mainstream society.

I would like to think we don’t have the death penalty because we believe that where there is life there is hope and promise of rehabilitation and a new beginning. Following this principle, we should spend more on psychiatrists, psychologists, priests, pastors and imams to make our prisons less of a penal and more of a reformation system.

Here, I’d like to call out this country’s biggest Christian sect, the Catholic Church, to spend more time, money, and effort in “visiting” (rehabilitating?) prisoners. It cannot be merely anti-death penalty; it must also be positively pro-rehabilitation. It cannot be pro-life only for the unborn, it must positively push for the right of living criminals to a new lease on life.

In our culture, this could be a veritable stab in the dark. But even more crucial than super-maximum security to keep criminals from breaking out of a physical prison is a super-maximum programmatic effort to have the government, the Church, and civil society break out of the mental prison of their outmoded philosophy of crime and punishment.