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.
“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.
Scholastic Zach Presutti, SJ,
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.”