Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Kerry WeberJuly 02, 2012

The classroom is small and lined with shelves filled with colorful books. A beige statue of the Virgin and Child sits in a niche, below a panorama photograph of Nazareth and beside a painting of the Last Supper. On a stack of metal folding chairs the words “Catholic Chapel” are stenciled in black paint. From inside the room, a visitor could easily mistake it for any other religious education classroom. It is only when one steps outside that the guards and the gates and the barbed wire that make up so much of San Quentin State Prison in California, become visible. It is then that you realize this is no ordinary classroom.

Each week, George Williams, S.J., stands in the front of this room wearing his priestly garb and collar. In front of him sits a group of up to a dozen men wearing another sort of uniform: the navy sweats, powder blue scrubs and denim jackets issued by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Once a week the men gather to attend Father Williams’s class called “Introduction to Church Teaching.” At other times, they might be there to attend “Introduction to Church History” or “Philosophy as an Introduction to Theology,” or they might be in the next room, the chapel, to learn more about St. Ignatius Loyola in “Introduction to Jesuit Spirituality.”

The classes are the brainchild of Father Williams, the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin, who was inspired by both the Protestant chaplaincy at the prison and the Jesuit schools in the Bay Area. When he learned that a local Baptist seminary was offering college-level courses for San Quentin inmates, Father Williams wondered why he had not yet taken advantage of the wealth of theology resources at area schools like the Jesuit School of Theology, the University of San Francisco and the Graduate Theological Union. He decided to create a program of his own, recruiting a few volunteers from the nearby universities as teachers. Each class is different, and each teacher is free to take his or her own approach. A majority of the students are Catholic and a number are interested in converting, but others attend out of general interest, including one Rastafarian, a couple of Buddhists and a few Protestants.

In his introductory course, Father Williams uses the DVD’s from the Rev. Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” series along with selections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He often pauses the video to discuss the topics with the men. He stresses to his students that he is not there just to teach them doctrine, but to help them to think critically and to approach the church with questions. And they do: What does the church think about the death penalty? How does the church explain the nature of God and Jesus and the Trinity? If there’s a loving God, then how come there are places like this? “Use your brain,” he tells them, “because God gave us brains and hearts, and he expects us to use both.”

The pilot program, which began in February 2012, was designed to last 12 weeks, and Father Williams has been asking for feedback from the men in order to refine the program. He hopes the classes offer a chance for spiritual growth. San Quentin is unusually open to creating new rehabilitative programs for inmates and was receptive to the idea and grateful for it. The inmates were as well.

Like a Family

Johnny, 35, is a student in both the church history and Ignatian spirituality classes. He has a young face, a mop of brown curls and a crucifix and miraculous medal on a chain around his neck. Baptized in 2010, he has tried hard to learn about his Catholic faith, even working as an assistant clerk in the chapel in order to stay as close as possible—physically and spiritually—to the church. He helps fill requests from prisoners who cannot get to the chapel, sending them Bibles, prayer cards or rosaries. Growing up, Johnny was part of a nondenominational household but rarely went to church. After entering San Quentin, he began exploring the various chaplaincies. “It was always the Catholic Church where I felt most comfortable,” he says. “Maybe that’s because of the family setting here, with the Father and with Virgin Mary as our mother and all the angels and saints. It felt more like a family here than anywhere else.”

In his 16 years of incarceration, he says the three months he has spent at San Quentin have been among his best. “The more I learn, the more I want to share with others,” he says. “And the more I meditate on things I’m doing in the church program, the better I am at learning more about who I used to be and how I’m different now and what caused me to do what I did to get to be here.”

Kevin, 37, is taking three classes sponsored by the Catholic chaplaincy. Incarcerated for 22 years and in San Quentin since December 2011, he came to the classes because he felt himself struggling spiritually and was not quite feeling himself. “Almost anything we do of a positive nature really helps, but when you’re doing religious-based study…it focuses on your relationship with others and so it helps you to think before you react, and think about how you’re coming across, about being more polite or respectful.” Kevin can name a few times when another prisoner addressed him in an aggressive manner; but instead of becoming angry, as he used to do so often, he just bit his tongue. The other person eventually apologized.

Father Williams has found that his own understanding of faith has benefited from his discussion of Scripture within a prison setting. “I think there is something about being in this environment that brings the Scriptures alive in a way you don’t get in a parish,” he says. “Over at death row we’re talking now about the Passion of Christ. Jesus was sentenced to death and these men are sentenced to death. There are so many parallels. Being arrested, put on trial—unfairly, in Jesus’ case—and then sentenced to be executed and then being executed by the state. It’s uncanny how you hear the stories in a different light here.”

Raised in Oakland, Calif., Ed, 59, has been incarcerated for 13 years and in San Quentin for two and a half of those. He is taking courses in Jesuit spirituality and church history. As a cradle Catholic, he saw the classes as refresher courses but soon realized their potential sources of strength. “I only have two things in this environment. One is my spirituality and my ability to come and participate in religious services. The other is my communication with my daughters,” he says. “That is about all I have. The likelihood of my getting out is very, very remote at best.” He has found comfort in the life of St. Paul. “Paul has been one that’s been there, done that,” Ed says. Faith “provides a wonderful escape from the environment we live in,” he says.

More Than Their Crimes

Many of the men at San Quentin are serving sentences ranging from 15 years to life in prison for violent crimes. Father Williams says it is sometimes difficult to get people on the outside to see these men as more than their offenses. A letter arrived recently on behalf a man who will soon come before the parole board. He has been in prison 34 years, since he was 18. “How many of us are the same people we were in 1978?” Father Williams asks. “Given the chance, these men really blossomed as aware human beings,” he says. “The other side of that is if you take a man or woman and throw them into a place where they’re neglected and mistreated and shamed for 20 years, they’re going to change, too, but for the worse.”

The American tendency toward individualism makes it easy for society to disconnect from those in prison, says Kathryn Getek Soltis, an assistant professor and director of the Center for Peace and Justice Education at Villanova University, who also has served as a Catholic chaplain at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston. “Our theological understanding of incarceration and punishment has to take into account that [prisoners] are still full members of our community,” she says. “There’s no conception of the common good that can exclude people who are behind bars.” Ms. Soltis argues that those outside the walls have a “heightened responsibility” to ensure that prisoners participate in the common good, to the extent possible. “Giving them the opportunity to see that they have the ability to do good is so critical to their human dignity,” she says.

The theology classes at San Quentin help to encourage the inmates to realize their inherent self-worth. “This isn’t just something people come to in order to hide behind the Bible or to try and find a way to let the board let them out,” Kevin says. “Some of us have no chance of getting out, and yet we still continue to come here because we find the enrichment very fulfilling. We’re human beings, and most of us come here with a sincere heart, despite any of the things we may have done in the past. And some things are violent and terrible. But not everybody is just an animal who is locked up. To be judged by just a small portion of our lives compared to the totality of our lives is wrong.” Ms. Soltis said that her students, after tutoring prisoners, often echo Kevin’s sentiment: the inmates are human beings, not statistics. “The students’ second realization is, ‘Oh my gosh, I wasn’t expecting them to be human beings.’” Ms. Soltis said, “It’s a damaging assumption to be carrying around.”

Visitors from the outside can help provide healing realizations for the inmates, too. Alan, 50, was baptized last year and is taking the Ignatian spirituality class. He says the classes have helped him to grow not only as a person but as part of a community. “It makes us feel like we’re wanted, and sometimes in prison we feel a little bit out of the loop. When people come from the outside, it is just such a great feeling for them to be with us and pray and learn in the Catholic tradition.” The classes have helped him learn to move on with his life as best he can. “I’ve learned about forgiving myself for what’s happened with addiction and the causes that make us what we are today,” he says. “But it’s a struggle.”

Seeing this struggle is one reason Father Williams chose to be ordained in 2004, after spending 15 years as a Jesuit brother. “If there’s one thing in prison that people desire, it’s forgiveness. And often self-forgiveness is the hardest part,” he says. “I realized that the guys really needed confession, and I wanted to be able to provide them that sacrament because it’s profoundly healing for the guys in here, and my favorite part of being here, really. In prison, that’s where the rubber hits the road—in the reconciliation room.”

Father Williams hopes that eventually the classes will earn the men college credit. “Prisoners are some of the best students because they really want to learn,” he says. “A lot of them, for whatever reason, were not given the opportunity. They were told they were stupid, or they didn’t have good schools, or there was so much dysfunction they didn’t go to school.” Once, a sociology professor from Patten University, in Oakland, Calif., brought her students from the outside to meet with the men to whom she had taught the same course in prison. They discussed issues around criminology, and Father Williams had a chance to sit in. He was surprised and impressed by the response of the inmates. “The guys not only had read the material and were reflecting on it, but they also had lived it,” he says. “So they were bringing real lived experience to academic discussion, which you don’t always find.”

And the classroom experience continues to help with the way the men live their lives. “In here there are so many people who seem to be discouraged or upset or angry, and what we’re learning from the church are ways that we can reach out to them,” Johnny says. “You try to do for others first. That way you’re always taken care of because while you’re busy doing for others, God is taking care of you.”

View a slideshow from the Catholic chapaincy at San Quentin. Listen to a podcast on the theology of prison ministry.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 7 months ago

Thanks to Ms. Weber for this excellent piece.

Matthew 25 calls us to feed, clothe, shelter, minister when ill, and to visit "Christ" in prison. We Catholics invest heavily in all these elements - except prison ministry, which in most instances appears to be a near-afterthought. Whereas the Catholic relief and hospital systems, and Catholic Charities services, attention to immigrants, and others command large shares of diocesan budgets, services for the incarcerated and for persons after release are most likely buried in the lacunae of the accounting sheets. Surely shortages of priests and distances to jails and prisons make the ministry difficult, but anecdotal evidence suggests that incarcerated persons are among the very last atttended, and rarely ministered to or visited. I believe recent Pew research indicated that incarcerated Catholics are the least ministered to among major religions, except Muslims.

We are extraordinarily fortunate in the written work of the US bishops, including their 1973, 1978, and especially 2000 statements on criminal justice, which are rich in insight and in guidance.Now we need preaching in our parishes and from our bishops, along with structures - and personnel and budgets - to find Christ in prisoners, in their victims, families, and communities, and in public policies affecting crime, responsibility, rehabilitation, and restoration.Thanks again to Ms. Weber and to all those cited in this piece.
Beth Cioffoletti
10 years 7 months ago
Thank you Fr. Williams!!! (and Kerry for bringing this story to us). 

I have five friends who are doing hard time in prison.  I knew only one of them before he was incarcerated.  I learn so much from them about humility and patience and forgiveness, but I also despair at the lack of real spiritual education and development that they have available to them.  I am sure that the prisoners at San Quinten drink this stuff up.  I hope that we can figure out a way to make this more widespread.  It is a gift not just to the inmate, but to those from the outside who dare to venture inside the prisons in search of Christ-among-us.   We "outmates" are so in need to knowing our imprisoned brothers and sisters. 
ed gleason
10 years 7 months ago
Thanks for this article.. Men in recovery from both prison and addiction quickly discover that a spiritual journey needs the structure of the 12 steps bolstered by either   Franciscan and Jesuit spirituality that adds to  the 12 steps the Catholic centuries old praxis  traditions . Our society  needs to know and accept that a sincere/fully recovering person is a soul to behold. As Beth C says  'We "outmates" are so in need to knowing our imprisoned brothers and sisters.'
luis garcia
10 years 7 months ago
Wonderful article! As an ex-felon in the CA State Prison system during the 1990s ... I exited prison and returned back to school.... I earned my undergraduate degree in Theology from Loyola Marymount University.... nice to see minds are being stimulated behind the walls!
Susan Penasack
10 years 7 months ago
For a few months I have been part of a prison ministry. What is so remarkable to me (and I tell everyone) is how thankful the inmates are. They tell us all the time. "Thank you for coming to see us." "Thank you for spending time with us." "Thank you for checking that out for us." "That was nice of you." Very gratifying!And they tell us how bleak their week would be without us, too. We're glad we can be there and we learn as much from them, of course, as they do from us.

The latest from america

A Reflection for Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time, by Christopher Parker
Christopher ParkerFebruary 01, 2023
A year after his death, a look back on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh—and his influence on many American writers on nonviolence, mindfulness and contemplative spirituality.
James T. KeaneJanuary 31, 2023
Pope francis at left shakes the hand of Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi
Toussaint Kafarhire Murhula, S.J., a priest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, describes the joy of Congolese people at the pope's visit and his hopes for what the pope's journey might bring.
Ricardo da Silva, S.J.January 31, 2023
”Hands off Africa!” Pope Francis said on the first day of his visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 31, 2023