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Cover story

Behind the walls, healing begins in Christian community

(Editor’s note: An impressive range of groups and individuals work against great odds to transform the grim prison experience into a time that enhances life. NCR will report on some of these efforts in the coming months. Below are two examples of Catholic “parishes” operating inside the prison walls.)

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

When Richard “Champ” Hernandez, speaks up during a service of the Grief Ministry Program, his concern might be one heard at a similar gathering in any parish in the country.

Hernandez, whose wife had a miscarriage, tells the group, “I buried my grief and questioned God and my wife. ... The fetus was my child, for life begins at conception. Now it’s time to let go of my unborn child. In questioning God, I have come closer to him.”

As the conversation moves from one person to the next, it becomes clear this is no ordinary parish.

“Everyone in this room has unresolved grief,” says another man. “I have lost several loved ones, including my mother and first grandson. But I have been able to deal with my grief, failed marriage and separation from my children. I took a life in 1989. Through reading and prayer, I have a deeper understanding of the grief I caused my victim’s family.”

Hernandez and the other man are inmates at the California State Prison, Sacramento, where about 60 percent of the 3,300 inmates are baptized Catholics.

While not canonically classified as a parish, the community here and a similar community in a prison in Delaware have structures that resemble those of a parish.

In both places, Catholic chaplains have organized parish-like organizations for ministry where prisoners evangelize their counterparts, pray for men on death row and contribute funds to a home for children.

The communities have pastoral councils and committees in which prisoners plan programs ranging from grief ministry to fund-raising.

In the Sacramento prison, Dennis Merino, a permanent deacon who is the chaplain, has organized the Catholic Community of St. Peter, which draws about 150 inmates. Members named the ministry and wrote its mission statement: “to provide a spiritual foundation for the men” during their confinement by “strengthening the faith of practicing Roman Catholics, restoring the faith of men fallen away from God and attracting, by example, new members to the Catholic church.”

The community has five committees: finance, bereavement, liturgy, social and Catholic outreach. Members meet monthly as a council to plan events and recommend ways to use the annual $2,500 operating budget derived from state funds, donations from the Knights of Columbus and inmates’ contributions.

The Bereavement Committee, one of five appointed to run various aspects of the in-prison parish, assists with the prison’s Grief Ministry Program, which allows the men opportunities to grieve the loss of family members in a supportive environment. “Violence can erupt when inmates suppress emotions of loss, guilt, isolation, anger and depression,” Merino explained. “They repress their grief,” because crying here is seen as a sign of weakness.”

During a memorial service held in one of the maximum security facilities, Merino called the ritual “a special time Jesus becomes present when we reach out to those who are hurting and get in touch with our own grief.”

Merino concluded the service with an exhortation to “embrace who you are with your mistakes. Our joy is in the realization that Christ lives among us.”

The Grief Ministry Program also includes counseling by the chaplain and by 10 inmates who have had deaths in their families. They are trained by the deacon during 10 two- to three-hour sessions. About half of the bereaved prisoners opt for grief counseling, the chaplain said.

Don Goodwin, a grief counselor, recalls a fellow inmate who would not eat or leave his cell after receiving a death notice. “I walked around the yard with him two hours, sharing my own loss, before he opened up and began to grieve,” Goodwin said.

Another counselor, John “Irish” McGuire, told NCR the Grief Ministry Program has helped him become compassionate. “I help fellow inmates deal with the loss of loved ones and with the everyday grief that comes from being in prison,” he said.

St. Peter’s committee members also endorse three nonsectarian support groups held weekly in two facilities. Typically, about 20 men sit in a circle facing a lighted candle on the floor, which barely illuminates the stuffy room. Each participant speaks without interruption for a few minutes about his past week’s experiences.

They praise the support group as a 2 1/2-hour escape from a guilt-ridden life, prison isolation and racial attacks in the yard.

One member noted, “No religious or racial boundaries here, which does something for my humanity. Here I see compassion and concern.”

Another said, “I get positive energy here and release what is bottled up. It’s like getting a monkey off my back.”

Each committee of St. Peter’s Community has specific functions. The Liturgy Committee selects music for Sunday Masses celebrated by Sacramento area priests. Twenty prisoners serve as lectors in the three facilities.

The group’s Catholic Outreach projects include sponsoring a teenager in Mexico being trained in crop production and providing living expenses for a retired Salesian nun in Mexico. Last Christmas inmates contributed $1,356.36 to the Sacramento Children’s Home.

The Outreach Committee publishes a newsletter named “The Rock Group,” which announces the community’s activities and invites non-practicing Catholics to join the group.

The Social Committee plans two community meals a year, inviting Catholics and their guests.

At the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, prisoners played an active role in their Catholic Prison Ministry, organized by Oblate Fr. Ron Chiasson, chaplain, who died unexpectedly April 22.

While praying for the poor, sick and hungry during the Mass he was celebrating at the prison, the 60-year-old priest died of a heart attack.

Volunteers who worked with Fr. Chiasson hope to continue their ministries when his successor is appointed.

Chris Mathews, an inmate and Chiasson’s senior pastoral assistant, said his participation in the St. Dismas Community has helped him change from a drug and alcohol abuser to a catechetical ministry student. He is serving 15 years to life for killing a man during a fist fight in 1991. “The god I had [then] was in a bottle,” he said.

“In prison you’re trying to change,” he said. “It’s easier now to let go and let God guide my life.” Mathews, 35, is taking correspondence courses for a diploma in catechetical ministry and has applied to become a Third Order Trinitarian priest or brother.

Mathews’ tasks included preparing for seminars in English and Spanish on life and growth in the Holy Spirit. Volunteers from various parishes conducted the seminars held several times a year.

Rosella Greco, a volunteer who gave talks during the seminars, believes this program brought peace to the inmates. “I feel they are captives set free” by the small-group discussions, anointing by the chaplain, their profession “to turn away from all wrongdoing and sin, and inviting Jesus to be lord of their life.”

Prisoners at the Delaware Correctional Center in Smyrna, Del., also told of their conversions while participating in the parish-like community.

They expressed “genuine remorse for their crime and compassion for their victims,” said Xaverian Br. Steve Strausbaugh, chaplain at the maximum security facility for some 1,750 prisoners.

Here, the St. Dismas Catholic Community has seen numerous conversions, Strausbaugh said. “Many prisoners tell me that without their incarceration [and involvement in ministry], they would be either physically or spiritually dead.”

Another prisoner told Strausbaugh, “When I come to St. Dismas, at least for a little while, I don’t feel like a convict but like a human being.”

But restrictions on religious activities have forced the community to downsize its ministries from 44 committees that functioned under previous chaplains to five groups that serve the Catholic Community’s 140 members.

Committee chairmen and elected inmates comprise the 12-member pastoral council, which meets monthly.

The Liturgy Committee works with George Taylor, a permanent deacon who is co-chaplain. The committee plans religious services, including two Saturday Masses and two eucharistic services each month, and helps to organize training for lectors and altar servers.

The Formation Committee helps organize the 10-month catechumenate process for persons who wish to join the church. This year three men in the program are being instructed by volunteers from Catholic parishes and by inmates “who have a sound knowledge of the Catholic faith,” Strausbaugh said. The committee also plans video-viewing sessions and weekly classes, open to all prisoners, that include reflections on scripture passages and lectures.

The REACH (Reach Every Ailing Convict’s Heart) group visits and prays with men in the prison’s infirmary.

The Social Concerns Committee organizes an inmate-led addiction support group and obtains speakers for the October Respect Life observance to address themes “from the womb to the tomb,” Strausbaugh said.

Another group, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, is the only such society in the world that operates in a prison, said Paul Reddington, a volunteer from Holy Family Parish in Newark, Del.

Eight prisoners belong to this society that supplies toiletries to inmates, pays for their medications and physicians’ fees when prisoners are unable to do so and assists family members in need.

When the mother of a prisoner was facing foreclosure on her home for owing two house payments, Reddington contacted six St. Vincent de Paul parish conferences and raised the needed $660.

Prisoners in the society “have grown spiritually by helping others,” Reddington said. They have become “less confrontational, more prayerful and more understanding of those in need.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999