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On Prisoners and Prisons

By Christopher Dodson
North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 2024

What does Catholic teaching say about prisoners and prisons? 

To answer these questions, we start with Jesus’ own words. Jesus, who later became a prisoner, directed his followers to visit the imprisoned. “For I was . . . in prison and you visited me.” (
Mt 25: 35, 36)

Christ’s directive is striking for several reasons. First, he tells us that when we visit the imprisoned, we visit Him. 

Second, Jesus’ command extends to both the guilty and non-guilty. Nothing in the Hebrew scriptures directs imprisonment for the guilty. Though we know it sometimes happened, Roman law did not provide for imprisonment as a form of punishment. In other words, in Christ's time, officials mostly used imprisonment for those awaiting trial or sentencing, much like today’s county and regional jails.

Third, Christ’s call to visit those in prison was something new. Nowhere in the Old Testament is visiting the imprisoned included among the expected acts of the righteous.

Fourth, the notion that people should visit those in prison was countercultural at the time. It was considered shameful to go near the jails, mines, and other places where people, guilty or not, were detained. St. Paul mentions the cultural shame in his second letter to Timothy. He writes that while he was in prison “everyone in Asia deserted me” except “the family of Onesiphorus because he . . . was not ashamed of my chains.” (
2 Tim 1: 15,16).

History shows that early Christians visited and cared for the imprisoned even if they were not Christians. Pachomius was an Egyptian pagan captured by Romans around 313 A.D. While in captivity, Christians regularly provided food and comfort to Pachomius and his fellow captives. These acts of mercy by the Christians so impressed Pachomius that he investigated Christianity after his release. He converted and became one of the founders of communal monastic life. He is now called Saint Pachomius.

For all these reasons, the Church came to identify visiting those in prison as one of the seven corporal works of mercy. (
CCC 2447)

Works of mercy, however, are acts of charity. What does the Church tell us about how the government should treat prisoners?

To protect the common good, governments have a right and duty to detain persons when necessary. At all times, authorities must respect the demands of justice. Persons should not be punished unless they are proven guilty. Torture is never acceptable. Those arrested should be swiftly tried rather than wait in detention. Most importantly, the system should serve the twofold purpose of “encouraging the re-insertion of the condemned person into society; on the other, fostering a justice that reconciles, a justice capable of restoring harmony in social relationships disrupted by the criminal act committed.” (
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 403)

Besides respecting the rights due as a matter of justice, governments must also respect the human dignity of inmates. Christ’s call to visit those in prison is not just a call to act charitably. It points to the dignity of the imprisoned person. Christ is saying, that no matter what the person has done and no matter the shame of being in prison, the person is still His child and has the same human dignity as every other person.  

A fundamental principle of Catholic social doctrine is that every human person is created in the image and likeness of God and has an inviolable dignity, value, and worth. That dignity cannot be taken away by the state or our own actions. For that reason, the bishops of the United States have stated that “any system of penal justice must provide those necessities that enable inmates to live in dignity: food, clothing, shelter, personal safety, timely medical care, education, and meaningful work adequate to the conditions of human dignity.” (
Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, 2001.)

Thankfully, North Dakota law protects the rights of inmates by requiring correctional facilities to:

  • Ensure inmates have confidential access to attorneys;
  • Ensure that inmates are not subjected to discrimination based on race, national origin, color, creed, sex, economic status, or political belief;
  • Ensure access to mail, telephone use, and visitors; 
  • Ensure that inmates are properly fed, clothed, and housed; 
  • Ensure that inmates have adequate medical care and not deny adequate medical care to an inmate who does not have health insurance or cannot pay the costs of medical or health care; and
  • Ensure that inmates may reasonably exercise their religious beliefs. 

In 2021, the North Dakota Catholic Conference successfully worked to further strengthen the religious rights of inmates. Remember these rights if you or a loved one becomes detained or imprisoned, no matter what the reason.

Indeed, unless we know someone in criminal detention, it is easy to forget about them. Christ’s call to visit the imprisoned, however, stretches from personal charity to the laws we pass at the state and federal levels. Everyone, therefore, should recall our obligations to those in prison and remember them in our prayers.

What We Do

The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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