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Diakonia - Prison Ministry

Posted on September 08, 2022 in: Vocations

Diakonia - Prison Ministry

Prison Ministry

Having been a high school religion teacher for 18 years, I was in diaconal formation when my second high school was closed and I was jobless.

At a retreat for deacon candidates and lay ministers on Ender’s Island, I was mulling over where I would do my six-week ministry rotation. I believed that deacons needed to go where no one else would go and where the need was great.

One of the lay ministers I had met was a deputy warden at JB Gates. So I asked him about doing something at his institution.

After teaching a class called, “How to Make a Moral Decision,” he offered me a job. I took that as an answer to my prayer for a ministry job that would sustain my family. For the next 21 years, I worked full-time as the Catholic chaplain for the Department of Corrections, with men and women, in five different institutions, across all five security levels, eventually becoming the senior Catholic chaplain in the state.

My decision was further confirmed in that I discovered that my experience working with high school-aged students was the best possible preparation for prison ministry because most inmates (because of drug and alcohol use) suffered socially and emotionally from arrested development. In short, instead of starting from scratch, I knew how to minister to this population.

What is prison? It is the catch basin for all the problems that our society refuses to deal with. And 97% will have to be legally released at some point. A very small portion of inmates are what the general public assumes they are: people who have made a bad moral choice. 

Being of sound mind the punishment of incarceration will (rationally) show them the error of their ways. That is the theory prisons were designed on and it works for those people who are rational actors who have committed a moral lapse. They don’t come back.

And yet, statistics show a high rate of recidivism. The “revolving door,” in and out of prison. We on staff called it “doing life on the installment plan.” Most inmates are what we called “frequent flyers,” and you have no idea of the sinking feeling that comes from meeting a new inmate who knows you from when she was a child visiting her mother in the visiting room 15 years ago. Many inmates are victims of poverty, addiction/alcoholism (theirs or their parents), trauma, abuse, untreated mental illness, and more.

They are not moral lapses that a few years in prison will fix anymore than locking up a diabetic will cure their diabetes. We are involved in a category mistake that is the biggest item in our state budget. And we know it’s a mistake for three reasons:

It doesn’t work.

We could send them to college (or give them treatment) every year for far less money.

In Europe, because they do deal with these issues, very few people are in prison in comparison to us. (And Original Sin is still operative on the other side of the Atlantic to the best of my knowledge.)

The good news is that as Pope Francis has called on us to “accompany” (to walk with) the poor and the marginal, and the State has gathered them together in prison for our ministerial convenience.

Prison ministry is generally, in my view, safer than walking in a major city. The inmates know who you are. They know you are not their jailer and that you are there to make their life better. Even if a particular inmate would never come to a church program, they would be protective of a volunteer if for no other reason than their volunteer for say an art program may not come in if volunteers are not safe. I was once protected by inmates from walking into the middle of a riot in the yard.

What volunteers need to do is follow the rules that protect them, believe in the value of the program they are offering and trust the Holy Spirit and maintain a pastoral relationship and avoid a personal relationship.

So, does prison ministry work?  Yes, about as well as ministry in your parish does. People often look for some miraculous radical change from inmates. How many of those do you see at your church? Our job is simply to “sow the seed.”

The joy of prison ministry is the experience that Christ was not speaking metaphorically when he said, “I was in prison, and you visited me.” (MT 25:36) He waits for us there today.



 


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