You are transported into a darkened room measuring 6×9 feet. Your landscape becomes a picture of blank, cracked walls, a sliver of a window, a small desk, sink, and a toilet. Now you must spend 22-24 hours alone and constrained within this space with no visitors. Having only minimal human interaction, it is not uncommon for a whisper of insanity to creep into your thoughts and actions.
The scene described above was experienced by more than 200 college students from Mount St. Joseph University and Xavier University through a virtual reality simulation. The Critical Issues in the Criminal Justice System project brought the experience to college campuses through partnerships with Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC), Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), and Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE), with support from the SC Ministry Foundation. The brief, nine minute virtual reality simulation is a method to increase awareness of the moral injustice of solitary confinement, and the need to reform our criminal justice system.
“Our goal with this project was to share these issues with the young adult population—which tend to be difficult to reach,” explained Sister Andrea Koverman, SC, who coordinates the anti-death penalty programs for IJPC. “The virtual reality technology truly immersed the students into a deeply impactful experience.”
These issues are examined through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching, which promotes the life and dignity of every person and the right to basic needs for proper development, for all are created in the image and likeness of God. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Cincinnati and later of Chicago, described life as a “seamless garment,” which symbolizes a “consistent ethic of life.” All issues concerning life are interconnected – such as the death penalty, euthanasia, human trafficking, the right to migrate, workers’ rights, and just warfare – and focused on all stages of life at the beginning, throughout our time on Earth and at the end of life.
Within the frame of Catholic Social Teaching, the Critical Issues in the Justice System project provides data-driven evidence of the unfairness and misperceptions of the U.S. criminal justice system. Some evidence challenges the effectiveness of the death penalty. In fact, according to the Death Penalty Information Center:
- From 2000 to 2016, data affirmed that states that do not utilize the death penalty have lower rates of murder.
- The grave possibility exists that an innocent person might be executed. Since 1973, more than 150 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence; nine were released from death row in Ohio.
Further increasing the injustice, the American Civil Liberties Union reports that 93% of states often place people on death row in solitary confinement, which the United Nations considers to be an act of torture. This practice has been proven to exacerbate existing mental illness and lead to mental illness in previously healthy individuals, often with an increased risk of suicide.
In 2007, the American Bar Association found that the state of Ohio failed to meet basic standards of fairness and equity in 93% of the capital punishment cases they reviewed. The Critical Issues in the Justice System project aimed particular focus on the lack of response from the Ohio legislature to the task force recommendations to correct those issues.
Students participating in the virtual reality experience were provided postcards to sign and send to Ohio’s governor and legislators to advocate for action. Students were emotionally overcome by the fact the virtual reality they experienced is an actual reality for many, which prompted more than 100 students to sign postcards.
Difficult issues such as the death penalty and solitary confinement are often hidden and from those not implicitly involved. Evidence shows that perpetuating a culture of violence and revenge may continue to put innocent lives at risk. As an alternative, IJPC, CMN, and OTSE are promoting restorative justice, a community-centered approach that focuses on victim’s needs and the offender’s rehabilitation and responsibility to repair harm and foster healing.
As people of faith, we are called to promote the seamless garment of life. Pope Francis shared, “In the face of unjust and painful situations, faith brings us the light which scatters the darkness.” To shine more light on these issues, consider taking action:
- Sign up for email action alerts from the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center: ijpccincinnati.org
- Ohioans may sign an electronic petition provided by Ohioans To Stop Executions, urging Governor Kasich not to resume executions in 2017: otse.org
- Learn more about the national efforts of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice: catholicsmobilizing.org