Releasing Hearts from Behind Bars

By Mike Gabriele

They committed crimes—and they are paying the price. More than two million Americans, mostly men, and disproportionately men of color, are serving time behind bars—many for decades. Regardless of their offenses, these are people whom God does not want to lose. But, unfortunately, as they sit idle in their cells, their minds tend to focus on their confinement, their transgressions, their hopelessness, and the awful sense that God and society couldn’t possibly forgive them or want them back.

This is where the devil wishes to keep them, and why we, as brothers and sisters for others, should be compassionate and present to them on their journey toward rehabilitation. The Jesuits of the Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces have a long history of providing spiritual direction and educational services to the imprisoned. Many Jesuits begin as early as their formation, while studying at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, Calif., serving at one of the biggest, most infamous prisons in the country—San Quentin.

Fr. George Williams, SJ, has been chaplain at San Quentin for nearly six years and is working on his Doctorate in Criminal Justice from Northeastern University. He teaches a prison ministry course at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. “As Jesuits, we are called to go where the Church is not being served. And since a majority of those in prison were in poverty before their incarceration, serving this population is also a real way of serving the poor.”

There are approximately 4,000 inmates at San Quentin, with 750 on death row. Most are uneducated, many were physically or mentally abused, and few had any real privileges in life before falling into crime. “These men are hungry for change,” Fr. Williams said. “And believe it or not, they take to Ignatian Spirituality like fish to water. Many of them are still affected by the crimes they have committed, and it takes a lot of one-on-one interaction to get them to see and understand that nobody is beyond God’s forgiveness.”

Fr. George Williams, SJ, chaplain at San Quentin, believes that prison ministry is a ministry of compassion and presence.
Fr. Patrick Rogers, SJ, who spent many years as director of campus ministry for the main campus of Georgetown University and is now working on his doctoral thesis, also provides chaplain support for a prison ministry program at Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Maryland. His brother and sister-in-law began the ministry from their parish in Millersville, Md. Fr. Rogers gained an interest in prison ministry while a scholastic at Berkeley, taking U.C. Berkeley students up to San Quentin to play basketball with inmates. Now he fights the Washington, D.C., traffic on Tuesday afternoons to meet with inmates at Dorsey Run (part of Jessup Penitentiary), celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, or walking them through the Examen or other catechetical teachings relevant to the day. “This Year of Mercy resonates very deeply with these men, as you can imagine,” said Fr. Rogers. He goes on to say that since the inmates are unable to make the pilgrimage to the local Holy Door of Mercy to gain the Jubilee Plenary Indulgence, they asked to have the door to their meeting room blessed (as is prescribed by the Pope). “It is not uncommon to now see an inmate or volunteer kiss their hand and touch the door before entering.”

“The corporal work of mercy tells us to visit the imprisoned,” pointed out Fr. Timothy Brown, SJ, who leads the office of mission integration at Loyola University Maryland and who also does work at Jessup. “I am part of the Prison Scholars Program, offering non-credit college-level instruction to inmates. It’s very rewarding. Aside from a sabbatical I took while serving as provincial for the Maryland Province, I’ve been teaching at Jessup since 1995.”

The New York metropolitan area has six prisons, including Rikers Island, that benefit from a program called THRIVE, founded by Jesuit scholastic Zach Presutti, SJ, who is assistant executive director of Centro Altagracia de Fe y Justice, a Jesuit social apostolate in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. THRIVE is a bridge of collaborations between several Jesuit parishes in the New York City area, comprised of two main components—contemplation and action. The contemplation program is much like any retreat setting, teaching participants Ignatian reflection based on the Examen. “The inmates enjoy acting out the parables of Jesus,” said Zach. “In fact, one guy who had been on Rikers for 12 years, wrote a one-act play that is now being performed off-Broadway.”

Rikers Island off Manhattan is one of six New York area prisons where scholastic Zach Presutti, SJ, has implemented his THRIVE program for inmates, former inmates and their families.
The action part of THRIVE provides life-skills for both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. A new computer lab will give inmates hands-on training, further helping them in their rehabilitation. The program also provides assistance and guidance for the families of those in jail, such as helping mothers and wives with transportation to visit their sons and husbands and providing the family with spiritual counseling.

 
Scholastic Zach Presutti, SJ,
Zach has also sparked interest in his prison ministry at Regis High School, just over the East River from Rikers. Students there wanted to participate in the program somehow, so they collected clothes to donate to the juvenile detention center inmates. Zach actually chaperoned some of them to deliver the donations and to meet a few of the inmates. The students first arrived on Rikers with quite a bit of apprehension, fully aware that Catholic school teens donning khakis and collared shirts might not present as the most relatable group to their prisoner counterparts. After being greeted with smiling faces and warm handshakes, however, jitters were set at ease and meaningful conversations ensued. Zach was very impressed with how the students interacted with the boys serving time. “These young inmates got to see and experience other teens who are not involved in gangs and drugs, and who actually want to be educated. You can see it rubbing off. They want to change and do the same.”

Whether juveniles serving a few months, or adults serving several years to life, Zach hopes all these inmates open their hearts to the message that God loves them for who they are, not for what they have done. “It takes some time,” he said, “but many of them soon realize that even though they are in jail, they are not abandoned. They are not stuck. They can change.”

Fr. Williams at San Quentin admits that the feeling he gets seeing an inmate find hope in Christ and begin the process of forgiving himself is unlike any other. “When I receive a note from an inmate saying that I have helped him find himself and make peace with God, it’s more rewarding than any other honors or accolades I can imagine.”

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