"We think of ourselves as a civilized society, yet we know that in practice our treatment of prisoners often falls short of acceptable standards," he said. "The care of prisoners, therefore, is a measure of the maturity of a society."
He said society must act wisely to ensure that the needs of prisoners are met while insisting that they face the consequences of their criminal acts.
"Depriving someone of their liberty is a legitimate punishment. Yet no one can reasonably claim that the conditions in which we hold many prisoners are acceptable," he said. While there are examples of well-run prisons in England and Wales, "it is a stain on our society that in the twenty-first century some prisons are still characterized by rubbish, damp, dirt, graffiti, and unhygienic facilities."
He noted an inspector general's report that prisoners often must eat their meals in their cell right next to an unscreened toilet.
"There is surely no justification for treating our brothers and sisters with such disregard," he added. "A society which shows such contempt for a prisoner's dignity truly undermines that prisoner's chance of reforming their lives."
He said the Catholic Church has a "vital part" to play in prison reform, given Jesus Christ's mandate for Christians to visit and care for the imprisoned in Matthew 25. Among the reforms he advocated were efforts to ban mandatory disclosure of criminal sentences on initial job applications. Critics say the job application process screens out newly released prisoners and ensures many will never find sufficient employment, no matter whether they have reformed and educated themselves in prison.
Other failings in the prison system include the growing number of prisons who suffer harm, including self-inflicted harm, suicide, and murder.
"People in prison have done wrong. In many cases they have caused great suffering. Yet they still have the same dignity as every other man, woman or child," the cardinal said.
He called for better mental health support and safer staffing levels, describing these as "urgent necessities."
Any prisoner who returns to crime, or suffers addiction, unemployment or violence upon release, shows that the prison system is not working, the cardinal said.
"The Year of Mercy presents an opportunity and a challenge to re-energize our commitment to all whose lives are touched by prison," the cardinal said.
(Story continues below)
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