With a lifelong Catholic at the helm, Oregon eyes prison reform

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The head of the Oregon prison system is looking to make significant changes to the way the state views punishment, and she insists that Catholics and other people of faith have an important role to play.

Colette Peters is the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections and a cradle Catholic. She is currently heading up a 10-year plan in the state that draws largely from the Norwegian prison system. The collaboration is part of the European Prison Project, which was initiated in 2017.

Peters told CNA that the project seeks to humanize the penitentiary experience. Following the Norwegian structure, she said the act of going to prison should be the penalty, rather than prison being a place where further punishment is administered. Jail time should emulate the community outside of prison, she said, with services including employment departments and libraries.

"Your liberties being taking away, being away from your family is your punishment. Everything else once you arrive in that prison system should model your community life. It should look as much [as possible] like the community that you left, in terms of programing, treatment, education, work, connectivity with your family," she said.

This requires involvement from the outside community, including a greater presence of volunteers, Peters said.

About three-quarters of the 2,000 volunteers in prisons throughout Oregon are religious volunteers, she said. While there are paid chaplains on staff, religious leaders are relied on to lead spiritual ceremonies and provide other services.

Peters pointed to a 2012 study from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, which found that prisoners' interaction with the outside community greatly reduced the chances of an inmate's return to prison. This was true for prisoners who were visited by friends, family members, mentors and other community members. Visits from ex-spouses were a notable exception – they increased the risk of recidivism. According to the study, the best results involved the visitation of siblings, in-laws, fathers, and clergy.

"The primary element that they found was that visits reduced recidivism," Peters said. "Families were at the very top of the list of course, but so were religious leaders."

The European Prison Project is not so much a program as it is an exploration into a new outlook on the prison structure, in which the dignity and respect of the adults in custody (AIC) are prioritized, Peters said.

"This concept recognizes an AIC's right to visiting, programming, treatment, and work, as well as their right to make complaints, to make use of community services, and to have access to an ombudsman or public advocate who will represent their interests and safety," read an overview of the program.

The Oregon Department of Corrections has sent personnel to Norway twice as part of the initiative. The first trip involved Peters, a team of administrators, and a group of legislators to observe Norway's prison structure. Last September, Peters took a team of 15 frontline correctional officers to the country to immerse themselves into prison jobs and other aspects of society, like churches and home life.

Norway's citizen are very proud of its system, said Peters, noting that the country's recidivism rate is about 20 percent, half that of Oregon. She added that in Norway, the "word inmate isn't a scarlet letter," but rather, time in prison is viewed as an opportunity for rehabilitation.

"Because [they] want them to be good neighbors … the community actually reaches into the prisons, engages with them in a way that's pretty profound."

In the U.S., Peters said, there are serious obstacles that restrict an inmate's integration back into society. This includes "fear mongering" and a stigma surrounding a criminal record, which can make it difficult for former prisoners to find jobs, apply for housing and rebuild their lives.

A majority of inmates want to leave prison as good and functioning members of society, she stressed.

"Figuring out how to change that dynamic and change that perception, it's only going to happen by bringing people inside," she said.

"These volunteers will tell me that it is a spiritual experience for them – life altering and life changing – to hear the stories of individuals who most of them want to come home and be good, tax-paying citizens," she added.

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As all state prison facilities have opportunities for volunteer work, Peters encouraged Catholics to get involved with a local prison ministry. She said there are opportunities for individuals to meet with groups at a local jail or bring the Eucharist to Catholic inmates.

"I would love, just as our beautiful pope has proclaimed, that we … increase our Catholic communities' involvement inside our prisons, not just in Oregon, but around the world."

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