Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Congress calls for global prison reform

Compassion | Panel discusses ways to improve conditions for those behind bars
by Evan Wilt
Posted 1/24/18, 02:41 pm

WASHINGTON—U.S. lawmakers brought attention last week to an often-ignored injustice: poor prison conditions around the world.

On Jan. 17, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission convened a panel of experts to discuss systemic problems facing prisoners around the world and ways to help.

“It is not a contradiction to recognize that, although some people deserve to be imprisoned, while they are in prison their treatment should meet basic human rights standards,” said Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill.

More than 10 million people are imprisoned around the world, and many countries don’t have the resources or infrastructure to house criminals humanely. In Haiti, for example, prisons operate at 455 percent above capacity. And the numbers aren’t much better in places like El Salvador, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

For the majority of the world, a large prison population correlates with high poverty rates. And, compounding the problem, those incarcerated leave prisons worse off than when they entered.

“Not much good comes from breaking people’s souls,” said commission co-chairman Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., noting the poor treatment of prisoners around the world runs afoul of basic human dignity.

The goals of prisons are to deter crime and reduce recidivism, but poor treatment of prisoners leads to the opposite outcome, McGovern added.

Philipp Meissner, a United Nations crime prevention and criminal justice officer, offered some hope that more countries are becoming aware of the need for prison reforms.

In December 2015, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted revised rules for the standard minimum treatment of prisoners, known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules.” These rules, named after the former South African president who spent most of his early life incarcerated, offered the first revision of global standards since 1955.

The new standards seek to improve healthcare in prisons, investigations of deaths in custody, and disciplinary measures, as well as establish independent inspections. Most importantly, Meissner noted, for the first time in international standards, the rules set a limit on the use of solitary confinement.

But troubling trends remain. A November study from World Prison Brief found the number of women imprisoned around the world has grown by more than 50 percent since 2000. Many impoverished nations disproportionately incarcerate single mothers, according to Hilary Anderson, a senior specialist with the Organization of American States.

Many women imprisoned in poor countries experience sexual abuse and have little recourse to bring their oppressors to justice, Anderson said, adding that Congress needs better data to show which countries disproportionately incarcerate women and don’t provide the care or rehabilitation they need.

Despite the focus on other countries, the United States has its own mixed prison record. U.S. jails hold more people than prisons in any other country in the world: 2.2 million people sit behind bars on any given day. Most U.S. prisoners receive better care than those in international cells but still have poor recidivism rates. A 2016 study of more than 25,000 federal offenders showed half returned to jail within eight years of release.

Craig DeRoche of Prison Fellowship said prisons around the world should focus on restorative justice programs. This reconciliation approach brings victims and offenders together in the same room so that criminals can take responsibility for their actions, apologize to their victims, and discuss ways to prevent them from committing future crimes.

New Zealand recently implemented restorative justice initiatives for youth offenders and is working to begin the practice with adults.

DeRoche said restorative justice, particularly for low-level offenders, offers a cheaper and more effective method for fulfilling the intended goal of prisons: rehabilitating broken people.

Associated Press/Photo by Laurent Gillieron/Keystone Associated Press/Photo by Laurent Gillieron/Keystone Attendees at the World Economic Forum Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland

Oxfam and WEF harp on income inequality in Davos

At this week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, business and political leaders are buzzing afresh over income inequality. The WEF is emphasizing findings by the poverty-fighting group Oxfam that fewer than 100 billionaires now control as much wealth as half of the world’s population. A 2016 Oxfam research paper called the phenomenon “An Economy for the 1 Percent.”

Calling out high-income people and countries, the WEF echoes Oxfam’s premise that “the fight against poverty will not be won until the [income] inequality crisis is tackled.” One of the world trends, said the paper, is the increased share of profit going to capital owners versus those who labor to produce. So, the WEF preaches,“Reward hard work, not wealth” in a redesigned economy.

The WEF website says nothing of hard workers who reaped huge rewards and used them to bless millions, such as Amazon boss Jeff Bezos.

The paper—along with a growing number of WEF luminaries—supposes a zero-sum economic fallacy: One person is poor because another is wealthy. But wealth is not finite, and if income goes up for some it must not necessarily go down for others.

Acton Institute senior editor Joe Carter wrote in 2014, “Most people (except perhaps committed Marxists) would admit that it would not be fair to pay everyone the same despite differences in such factors as experience, productivity, and work ethic. The existence of some income inequality is therefore a sign of a fair distribution of incomes.”

Besides income disparity, Oxfam attributed global inequality to billions stashed in tax havens, as though that money would otherwise be made available to the poor. Such an amount of money, claimed Oxfam, costs African governments $14 billion a year in uncollected tax revenues, which might cover healthcare for millions of children “and employ enough teachers to get every African child into school.”

Rather than falling for the argument that inequality produces poverty, Carter advised followers of Christ to “champion economic policies and principles that are rooted in Biblical virtues and beneficial to the flourishing of our fellow man.” —Rob Holmes

Associated Press/Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post Associated Press/Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post Scott McIntosh works changing out lighting at the Denver Public Library as part of the Denver Day Works program.

Denver program shows Biblical principles work

The Denver Day Works program provides employment for homeless people with a difficult history and a chance for them to build a new one.

In November 2016, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock introduced a plan to put homeless people into menial day jobs with no regard for their resumes, experience, or criminal background. Anyone could participate, and those who worked hard were invited to work another day. Success in small, temporary jobs set the stage for easing into more permanent work.

Being faithful with little earned workers the reward of being able to show they could be faithful with a little more: A year later, 110 participants have moved on to full-time work. And about half of them were still employed after 90 days.

Those in the program work mainly in the city’s parks and public works departments. They plant trees and haul mulch. Some have worked to change old lighting to LEDs at the Denver Public Library. Others have helped out at the city election offices. All made more than $12 an hour—well above Colorado’s minimum wage of $8.31. The bonus was occasional free food, donated by area restaurants.

As the The Denver Post observed, one of the best ways of beating poverty is making money.

Hancock said the Denver Day Works program exceeded goals and will expand in 2018. His budget for this year is $696,300. About half pays the contractor, Bayaud Enterprises, which organizes work crews in shifts three days a week and helps get workers into housing and connected to public services.

This year the city wants to offer more varied work and include more minority, female, and disabled people.

Regina Pizarro, 46, started in the day-labor program and now works permanently in customer service at a call center.

“It didn’t matter whether I was shoveling mulch, working at Denver Votes—it didn’t matter what I was doing, because I had a job,” she told the Post.

Pizarro underscored the importance of the Bayaud supervisors and their effect on her: “They have a lot of compassion and understanding. They don’t look down on us because we’ve been on the streets.” —R.H.

Removal of ‘tampon tax’ in New York

In a bid to reduce a monthly crisis for homeless women, the New York state legislature passed a bill to cancel the “tampon tax” on menstrual products. The bill awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature into law.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio already signed a 2016 measure providing free distribution of menstrual products in city schools, shelters, and jails. The City Council touted New York City as the first municipality in the nation to guarantee access to feminine hygiene products. —R.H.

Evan Wilt

Evan is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Washington, D.C.

Read more from this writer