New Zealand prisoners share issues of poverty, mental illness and being overly from ethnic minorities with their jailed counterparts in many other countries, Senior Catholic Prison Chaplain Sr Veronica Casey, PBVM, confirmed at a recent Vatican meeting of prison chaplains.

Sr Veronica was one of 45 Catholic chaplains from 35 countries who met Pope Francis during the International Meeting of the Regional and National Ministers of the Penitentiary Pastoral in November.

“In no way could New Zealand be compared with the many countries where chaplains are required to bring food, medicines and other necessities to prisoners,” said Sr Veronica. “Nor where the prisons are so over-crowded that the detainees take turns at sleeping because there is no room for them all to lie down together.

“However, the issues of poverty, ethnic minorities, and mental illness are key characteristics of prison populations everywhere.”

New Zealand has 18 prisons, 14 for men and three for women. Sr Veronica gave the Vatican meeting a comprehensive presentation on the context and history of prisons in the New Zealand justice system.

She told the meeting New Zealand has the second-highest imprisonment rate in the Western World after the USA. Maori are 51 per cent of the prison population, but 16 per cent of the country’s population.

“We have had a reducing crime rate over the past 20 years, while the prison population has trebled since 1987; and we have a 60 per cent reoffending rate within two years,” she told the meeting.

“Since 1979, various governments have introduced increasingly harsh legislation intended as a deterrent to crime. This has only resulted in increased prison population, harsher penalties and increased difficulties getting parole.”

Sr Veronica said prison chaplaincy was a core corporal work of mercy.

She said the meeting’s key highlight was an audience with Pope Francis, who addressed the group and met each participant individually.

“Pope Francis has a deep concern for people in prison. He urged for change in the outlook and approach in treating prisoners. Instead of offering them help and adequate resources to live a dignified life, we are accustomed to discarding the person rather than making efforts for them to return to the love of God in his or her life.”

Prison chaplaincy in New Zealand is a wholly ecumenical service governed by Prison Chaplaincy Service of Aotearoa New Zealand, which is a trust board made up of members of Christian churches. The trust board holds contracts to provide religious and spiritual services to all in New Zealand prisons. The service is provided by paid chaplains, including Catholic chaplains, and by approximately 1400 volunteers from many denominations.

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