This Commission was founded at an international congress, convoked in Rome in the Holy Year 1950, by the Secretary of State, (the later Pope Paul VI. Participating at this congress were heads of prison chaplaincies from many European countries, the USA and Argentina.
Fifty years later with 105 member countries it is respected as a worldwide Public Association of the Faithful in the Catholic Church, with new statutes and the same interest in pastoral care for those in prison.
Following that inaugural congress, subsequent congresses were held in Fribourg (Switzerland 1954) and in Freiburg-im-Breisgau (Germany 1955). In 1972 the venue was Rome, at which time the participants were presented to Pope Paul VI. In order to establish the Commission on a legal footing, an interim executive commission decided on an association according to Swiss law. Statutes were agreed in September 1974 by a constituent Congress in London. Membership consisted of Chaplains General actively involved in prison work, plus delegates for the Penitentiary Apostolate which latter were appointed by the Bishops Conference for countries without a Chaplain General.
A Congress was held every two or three years. The first President was H.van den Bulcke (Belgium). Over the years since its foundation the name of the Commission was changed several times. The term "Commission", initially chosen to indicate the informal structure of the executive post, was retained despite occasional misunderstanding of the title. Congresses took place as follows:
|Munich||26th - 30th September 1977||President elected: E. Schraven (Netherlands)|
|Lucerne||26th - 30th September 1980||President elected: M.P. Mascarello (France)|
|Strasbourg||12th - 16th September 1983||President elected: Mgr. D. Atherton (UK)|
|Madrid||9th - 13th September 1985||President elected: Mgr. C. Curioni (Italy)|
|Vienna||14th - 19th September 1987||President elected: Mgr. C. Curioni (Italy)|
|Rome||14th - 21st September 1990||President elected: Mgr. C. Curioni (Italy)|
|Bovendonk||12th - 16th September 1993||President elected: L.T. Kosatka (Japan)|
|Warsaw||7th - 13th September 1996||President elected: L.T. Kosatka (Japan)|
|Mexico City||11th - 17th September 1999||President elected: Mgr. J. Branson (UK)|
|Dublin||5th - 12th September 2003||President elected: Mr. Christian Kuhn (Austria)|
|Rome||5th - 12th September 2007||President elected: Mr. Christian Kuhn (Austria)|
|Cameroon||27th August - 1st September 2011||President elected: Fr. Brian Gowans (Scotland)|
|Panama City||7th - 11th February 2017||President elected: Fr. Brian Gowans (Scotland)|
In 1990 Commission representatives were from 39 countries (mainly European); in 2000 this had increased to 105. In 2000 the Commission was given Special Observer status at the U.N. and was admitted to the Economic and Social Council in New York, Vienna and Geneva.
In October 1972, (by virtue of a letter from Cardinal Wright), the Commission was presented to the Congregation of the Clergy in Rome.
In London the original Statutes declared that the goals of the Commission were: "To assist prison chaplains in their work and to contribute to penal reform by the following means:- written documents, congresses and representation at international institutions (United Nations, Council of Europe etc.)
In Strasbourg 1983 the plenary of the Congress made a declaration asking all Christians "to link up with the Gospel tradition and with the constant practice of the Church through the ages-by an awareness of the problems that beset prisoners and their dear ones. Participants called for alternatives to prison, and, in those cases where imprisonment is unavoidable, to work to make it a more humane experience, and also to be prepared to offer a more generous welcome to all those who have completed their sentence."
In Madrid 1985 the Congress members asked countries to reduce imprisonment of minors and improvement of conditions of those who were in prison; to protect them from mental and physical abuse; to prevent overcrowding; to ensure adequate training for prison personnel. The Congress called upon the Church to supply sufficient qualified prison chaplains, and asked for cooperation between Christian communities both inside and outside prison to ensure that all are treated humanely and with dignity.
In Vienna 1987 the Congress reflected on the philosophy of "imprisonment as punishment" and the inhuman effects for both prisoners and their families where the former had no real possibility of rehabilitation. Congress called for a triple reconciliation from prisoners: in his relationship with God, with Society and with his own self. Also produced at this Congress was a programme of prison pastoral care.
In Rome 1990 the participants called upon the Church to adopt a clear standpoint on the death penalty, underlining the inhumanity of this punishment and declaring it to be no longer appropriate in a truly democratic and evolved society. It challenged the Episcopal Conferences to stimulate and promote pastoral care for prisoners at national and local level and the Christian communities to maintain pastoral contact with prisoners and their families and with the victims of crime. Civil society was urged to social and economic reform, since social injustice was without doubt a crucial factor in crime. Governments were urged to fundamentally reform their penal code.
At Bovendonk, Netherlands 1993 there took place discussion of the following Vatican and UN documents: The body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, the Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power; the safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty; the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials; plus in particular the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The Congress emphasized the continuous violations of human rights of prisoners, its deep concern for the inhuman conditions in many prisons and also about the length of time spent on remand by many prisoners - in some cases for more than five or even ten years. Also strongly condemned was the use of the death penalty which was absolutely incompatible with human rights. Congress called upon the Holy See and the entire Bishops' Conferences to use their authority and influence to change public opinion and to steer governments away from the death penalty.
In Warsaw 1996 the Congress members condemned the lack of international standards for the treatment of prisoners and also the prison system which often, instead of being just, degenerates into a system of injustice. Condemned with shock were the very many cases of torture and general brutality against prisoners. The Congress members called upon the authorities to fully implement the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and to give due regard to the human rights of prisoners. Episcopal Conferences and Religious Congregations were urged to continue all their efforts; the special role of the lay faithful in prison pastoral work was recognized and respected. Welcomed by the Congress members was the statement of the Holy See that the death penalty was "de facto" no longer acceptable in this day and age. All efforts should be supported which strove for a full abolition of the death penalty.
The 1999 Congress took place in Mexico City. Members discussed the real challenge of violence and delinquency; prisons could be a "structure of sin"; too many prisons were overcrowded instead of consideration being given to alternative constructive ways of justice. Members of Congress called for community based restorative justice and all possible forms of victim-offender reconciliation; prisons have a mainly negative effect, are rarely a deterrent, they dehumanize people and often do not protect society.
Also expressed at the Congress was solidarity for prison staff who perform their duty with commitment, whilst strongly condemned was the wide use of the death penalty; every effort should be made to abolish the death penalty as it was a barbaric way of dealing with human beings. Congress members were reminded of the United Nations Safeguards for the Independence of the Judiciary; members invited all benevolent people to develop a better and more profound understanding of delinquency and urged society to reject the widespread image of the prisoner as scapegoat.