Nations must guarantee human dignity of prisoners, Pope says

Pope John Paul II called on all nations this morning to ensure that prisoners are guaranteed their basic human rights and that alternative penalties to prison be sought and developed to include programs of “human, professional and spiritual formation.”

The Pope delivered this message to directors of prison administrations from the 45 countries that adhere to the Council of Europe. They were in Rome to discuss how European prison can better respond to the needs of inmates.

“In every civil nation there must be shared concern for preserving the inalienable rights of every human being,” he told them, recalling that the European value for human dignity is rooted in Christianity.

“You must correct eventual laws and norms which hinder (these rights), especially when it is a matter of the right to life and to health, the right to culture, to work, to the exercise of freedom of thought and to the profession of one's own faith,” he instructed.

The Holy Father called for a move toward more rehabilitation in the prison system and for an end to the harsh physical, emotional and mental treatment that most prisoners experience today. He also called for better training for those who work in the penal system.

"Measures that are simply repressive or punitive, to which one normally has recourse today, are inadequate for reaching the objective of an authentic recuperation of inmates,” he said.

“It is necessary to abolish those physical and moral treatments that are harmful to human dignity, and to commit yourselves to better qualifying professionally the role of those who work within penal institutes."

He spoke of the work of prison chaplains, whose duty, he said, "is a delicate task and in many ways irreplaceable." He also noted the important role of volunteer institutions and associations, dedicated to the welfare of prisoners and to their reinsertion into society.

He warned, however, that respect for the human dignity of prisoners “must not occur to the detriment of concern for society.

“For this reason, citizens must be defended, even with those forms of deterrence that are represented by penalties that serve as examples,” he said.

“But the dutiful application of justice to defend citizens and public order must not contrast with the due attention to the rights of prisoners and to rehabilitating them; on the contrary, this is a question of two aspects that must be integrated,” he insisted.

“Prevention and repression, detention and rehabilitation, are complementary acts,” he concluded.

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