Twenty-four years ago, my husband and I moved to a small town where he had taken a teaching job. We had been married for five years, had two children (with two still to come) and felt like old hands at life, which, in retrospect, we were not. As we adjusted to life in a village, we soon learned that our new home’s main industry was a state prison that squatted, ominous and foreboding, where a two-lane highway reached a dead end. Even though we met many people who worked there, we never went anywhere near the prison. We had come from the diverse metropolis of Los Angeles, so this seemed to us like another planet.
But that was before we became volunteers for our parish detention ministry six years ago. In a comedy of errors, in which my husband and I were each under the impression that the other one had discerned a certain call, we joined a new ministry. The recently hired Catholic chaplain at the prison organized our group of volunteers into teams of two. Each pair spent one Saturday a month conducting Communion services at two different prison yards. While there are priests who faithfully come to the prison as often as possible to hear confessions and say Mass, most of the time the chaplain is a one-man show for all things Catholic for over 5,000 inmates in five prison yards. Our active group of volunteers helps to make Catholic services more widely available.
With some apprehension, my husband and I accompanied the chaplain on our first Saturday, following him as he conducted services we would soon be doing on our own. I wrote everything down: where to park; what to wear; what to bring and not bring; what gates to enter; when to show our I.D.s, for which we had been fingerprinted and run through a law enforcement database; how to act. We worried that we would make a wrong turn, get lost and end up somewhere dangerous. We thought we would never get used to the security measures, and we found ourselves wondering if our decision to volunteer there was seriously flawed, even though we respected and enjoyed working with our fearless chaplain leader. Then it was time to come face to face with the inmates.
We waited in the chapel, which looked like any other chapel. And when the inmates arrived, we greeted them. I expected them to be scary, like characters from Central Casting, but they seemed glad to meet us. In fact, they didn’t seem much different from people who are not incarcerated. They were young, old, short, tall, thin, stout, bald, well-coiffed, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, outgoing, shy, articulate, silent, funny, stern. While some are tattooed to an alarming extent, the inmates as a group possess all the quirks and gifts and flaws, the nobility and the sin, that define humanity.
The services were reverent, yet they vibrated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The choir sang like angels. For my husband and me, it was an extraordinary spiritual experience, and we knew we would be back. God was speaking to us here, incongruously but clearly. Somehow we felt as if we had come home.
Today, our group of volunteers endures. We meet together monthly to determine the schedule. We read and discuss the themes and lessons in the upcoming Scripture readings in terms of how best to present them to incarcerated men. We help coordinate special events, like retreats or celebrations, two of the inmates’ favorites being the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. Sometimes outside groups come to give inmate retreats, and we help by giving talks, being group leaders, donating supplies, offering lodging to the visitors or, with official permission, preparing meals to share with the inmates at the culmination of the retreat.
For Some, a Wake-Up Call
Two years ago, I took a job in a records office at the prison, so I am able to volunteer an additional two weekdays after work. On Tuesdays I help facilitate a Criminals and Gangmembers Anonymous meeting, a 12-step program that originated in prison. On Wednesdays I lead a Communion service at the sensitive needs yard, which houses inmates who in a general population yard would be at risk of harm at the hands of other inmates.
Detention ministry may seem like a strange landing place for someone whose previous ministries mainly involved children and youth, and it is. When we moved here all those years ago, I would never have pictured myself in the places to which I now willingly go. The fact that I feel more at home in the prison chapel these days than I do in my own parish provides a trinity of proofs: that God has a sense of humor; that Jesus meant us to take literally those words about visiting him in prison (Mt 25:36): and that the Holy Spirit, when asked, will always provide the necessary gifts to make the impossible possible.
Working with inmate files in a records office, however, does not allow me to romanticize or trivialize why these men are here. While a few may be imprisoned unjustly, most of them are incarcerated for good reason. Some inmates continue their life of crime from captivity and have no interest in rehabilitation. Many live the revolving-door philosophy, returning to prison for a new crime or parole violation within months—or weeks—of their release.
Most inmates just want to do their time quietly, without attracting notice. Many of the inmates I have met were just unlucky. But for circumstances, they could be you or I in our early 20s, caught for doing something stupid and unable to afford a decent lawyer or even to comprehend the language of law. And some inmates really do see a prison term as a giant wake-up call from God. They read voraciously, participate in every service and program offered, take (or teach) sacramental preparation classes and open their hearts wide to metanoia, to daily conversion. They live an examined life. I believe I see the face of Jesus in them far more than they see the holy in me.
In some dioceses, like the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Office of Detention Ministry has been renamed the Office for Restorative Justice, because this signifies a broader, more effective endeavor. While detention ministry is clearly aimed at those held in the jails and prisons, restorative justice seeks both to facilitate restitution for victims of crime and to emphasize rehabilitation over retribution for the convicted. The goal is to build a more constructive and compassionate society.
Another group that can be touched by God’s love and forgiveness through restorative justice is the correctional staff. I am sometimes aware of officers who listen with casual intensity during our services and who come to treat us volunteers with respect, rather than with the initial skepticism that usually greets our bleeding hearts. It is my hope that they are also moved to treat the inmates in their care more humanely. I am often touched, during the Prayer of the Faithful at our services, when inmates pray for the well-being of the guards and other workers at the prison. They also regularly pray for the victims of their crimes. These are not prayers I would have imagined coming from the lips of criminals.
Unlikely Community of Faith
During services, we sing, repent, praise God, proclaim the word, pray and share the Eucharist together in an unlikely community of faith. Each week I prepare a reflection on the readings. I search for words that are relevant and helpful while praying that the Holy Spirit will smooth my delivery. Yet, when I ask for my fellow worshippers’ thoughts at the end of mine, the responses often throw sparks of wisdom and insight. “Why are you here?” I sometimes want to ask the speaker.
But I don’t. Every so often an inmate tells me his commitment offense, but it’s not information I need. I see further evidence of God’s grace in the fact that, when I go into the prison as a Catholic volunteer, I am more powerfully aware of God’s love for us than when I am anywhere else. I cannot explain it. But I know that when I shake hands at the sign of peace or place Communion into upturned palms, I am touching hands that have robbed, beaten, cheated, murdered and molested. But that’s when I am filled with the true mystery of sharing the Eucharist in community, because I am able to grasp those hands with love and know that where they have been does not matter. Where they are going, what they are going to do next, matters. I believe that hands that have caused hurt always have the God-given potential to be hands of tenderness.
Detention ministry gives me far more than I give others: I feel guilty when I am thanked for doing something that so enriches my faith. But despite my enthusiasm, some people who have tried on detention ministry have found it an uncomfortable fit. As St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…” (12:4). We must each discern the particular ministry to which the Spirit calls us at a particular time of our lives.
Every morning on my way to work, just before driving through the front gate of the prison, I see a sign that reads “Caution: Rough Road Ahead.” To us employees, it means that the state is still remiss in re-paving the weather-ravaged main road. But I often wonder how the warning strikes others who enter here, both arriving inmates and their visitors. I wonder if their hearts hurt at the aptness of the metaphor. Sometimes I wonder how unwitting the metaphor really is, or if someone in maintenance is a bit of a poet. There is no denying that prison is a rough road. But like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our choice of traveling companion makes all the difference.
HOW TO HELP
If you have reservations about volunteering in a prison or jail, here are some other possibilities.
Things to donate
• reading materials, like books, magazines or Bibles
• rosaries, scapulars or other religious items
• writing utensils (may require special approval)
• materials to assist in the ministry, like postage stamps, envelopes, greeting cards in Spanish and in English
• money or clothing to help with dress-outs (clothes to wear upon release from prison) for inmates with no family to provide them
Things to do directly for prisoners
• Become a pen pal to an inmate.
• Offer to cook or bake for special events as permitted
• Help with family visits to incarcerated parents (examples of California programs are “Get on the Bus” and “The Chowchilla Family Express”).
• Search out possible job placements for parolees.
• Begin chapters of programs with which you are already familiar and comfortable (St. Vincent de Paul, Guadalupe Society, Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.).
Things to do in the wider world
• Get involved with, or start, mentoring programs for the children of inmates and parolees.
• Help with victim assistance programs and with bereavement ministry for victims and their families.
• Protest the death penalty or support a moratorium against it.
• Advocate with legislators for more just sentencing policies.
• Pray for those who are imprisoned, and for those whom they have harmed by criminal activity and for those who minister and work within the prison walls.
For information, or opportunities to volunteer in detention ministry, check with your diocesan office or parish. You can also contact your local Catholic prison chaplain for specific ministry needs.