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INS nervous when Bible study topic is prisons

NCR Staff

Though denying it, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has effectively barred prisoners inside the INS-funded Elizabeth, N.J., Detention Center from discussing the references to prisoners in Matthew 25.

For almost six months, a Jesuit Refugee Service volunteers’ Bible group, Inside Spirit, had been using the gospel for the coming Sunday as the text for the weekly prayer meeting and discussion with the detainees in the for-profit Correction Corporation of America-operated center, a windowless former warehouse in the grungy warehouse district two miles west of the Statue of Liberty.

But the INS monitored the meeting -- a reading of the scripture and response to questions based on the text -- a few days before the Feast of Christ the King, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. When the monitors heard that in Christianity strangers are to be made welcome and prisoners visited, and listened in on the discussion that resulted, the INS pulled the welcome mat from under the Bible group’s feet. The volunteers were told they “should have had the good sense to change the reading.”

The INS occasionally has guards at the weekly liturgies celebrated by a Newark archdiocesan priest and a retired Jesuit (men and women detainees must attend separate services), but nothing untoward occurred Sunday, Jan. 9, when Isaiah 42; 6-7 (“bring out the prisoners”) was the text.

When the facility re-opened in 1997 -- after a 1955 riot under the for-profit Esmor Correctional Service -- INS vowed to make the Elizabeth facility a “model center.”

Despite the vow, the Jesuit Refugee Service has been providing -- without any cost to INS -- the only sustained public interaction at the center, which houses 250 men and 50 women. About two-thirds of the facility’s detainees -- Tamils from Sri Lanka, French-speaking Africans, Albanians and a small Spanish-speaking contingent -- have been attending an English as a Second Language program sponsored by the Jesuit service. And there’s a visitors program plus the Bible study. A small minority of the detainees is Christian, but about a third of all detainees attend the gender-segregated Sunday services and Bible discussion.

All programs have been summarily shut down.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas L. Sheridan in November had asked if he could conduct the sacrament of reconciliation. A month later, local INS Newark area director Andrea Quarantillo wrote that he could, but only in the “non-contact visit area over a telephone handset” with the penitent on the other side of the thick glass partition.

“I find that completely unacceptable,” Sheridan said. His problems with hearing confession under these conditions, he told NCR, include the 1996 experience of prisoner Conan Wayne who made a sacramental confession this way to Fr. Timothy Mokaitis in Eugene, Ore., and the confession, unknown to either Wayne or Mokaitis, was taped.

The Elizabeth Detention Center highlights an even bigger issue raised by Amnesty International, which contends that the entire U.S. refugee policy -- detention instead of parole for asylum seekers -- violates human rights standards.

A September 1999 Amnesty International report describes the detainees’ Catch-22 situation: The United States mandates detention for asylum seekers who arrive without proper documentation. Yet “international standards, which the U.S. helped create, recognize that most refugees only escape from their countries by traveling without documents or with false papers. And they should not be penalized for that,” the report said.

Asylum seekers can be held for months or years as they attempt to acquire the correct documentation; parole or release on bond is possible for some, but money has to be found.

When the center re-opened in 1997, the Jesuit Refugee Service asked Will Coley, just completing his Columbia University graduate studies in public policy, to explore what the service could offer. He was subsequently hired as program coordinator to build up a program that included English as a Second Language. Sr. Joan McEwan, who had taught the subject in Thailand, joined the team.

“There has never been a written agreement with INS,” said Coley, “just an understanding. Procedures were not in place for supervision or oversight. It was a ‘just do it’ kind of thing.”

A program of volunteer visitors was added. Then, last year, the Jesuit Refugee Service took over Bible study when a Newark deacon previously conducting it was taken ill.

The Jesuits offer a post-release service, coordinated by Tasha Gill, paid for by the Fund for New Jersey. “It’s basic,” said Coley, “picking people up when they’re released. This is a warehouse district. There’s no transportation really. People are let out at all hours.” Already the service has helped some 50 to 60 former detainees with temporary housing, work permits and “getting their lives in order.”

Coley said, “I’m not really sure what brought on this [INS] paranoia. The programs have grown exponentially. More and more people are interested in helping. Our [English as a Second Language program] is even mentioned in their booklet.”

Local INS director Quarantillo, in a Dec. 21, 1999, statement, said the Jesuit Refugee Service “broke the covenant that had been reached with the INS. The program of English classes and Bible study was the first of its kind. It was understood by all parties that detention issues would not be topics for discussion.

“The Newark district of the INS has no objections to Matthew 25 or any other Bible passage and does not seek to censor them. We only request that detention lessons not be included in the detention plans. [Jesuit Refugee Service] is on notice that INS is actively soliciting proposals for these educational services, and they have been invited to submit a detailed proposal.”

Meanwhile, INS headquarters in Washington endorses spiritual programs for its nine INS-run and dozens of privately contracted detention centers.

An INS headquarters spokesman told NCR Jan. 5, two days before Jesuit Relief Service director Fr. Richard Ryscavage was to meet with the INS commissioner, that the INS is “very receptive to and encourages visits from representatives of religions to minister to detainees.”

As a policy, he said, INS sees having priests, ministers, rabbis and imams “as very useful. It helps detainees continue to worship, to have some spiritual relief. That’s not what volunteers Charlie and Geri Mulligan, experienced in New Jersey. They were running Inside Spirit, the Bible group. Charlie Mulligan told NCR that the Correction Corporation of American “has been fairly good with us, in the sense they haven’t manifested any hostility. We always gave the guards a copy of what we gave the inmates.”

As Mulligan sees it, the downturn began with an incident that “INS chose to take seriously. In an English as a Second Language class, a teacher wrote on the board, ‘What would you like us to say at an upcoming meeting on refugees?’ ” Another sticking point was that the Mulligans were contacts for an Advent candlelight vigil outside the facility to pray for the detainees and their parole.

“We weren’t jumping up and down or agitating or blocking anything,” said Jesuit Fr. Sheridan. “It was prayers. For people.”

Next came monitors at the Bible group, the immigration service’s reaction to the Matthew 25 lesson (see below), and the immigration service’s ending the Inside Spirit meetings.

Coley said a couple of things -- both minor and correctable -- had perhaps riled the immigration service. English language essays were reprinted in the Jesuit Refugee Services newsletter Lighten the Burden, and one included a schematic of the visitation area drawn by a detainee.

Coley is currently writing a program outline for the Elizabeth Center, to ensure that those things don’t happen again.

The Jesuit Refugee Service nationally is pressing for a chaplaincy system for INS across the country.

At a Jan. 7 meeting with INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, requested by Ryscavage before the problem developed at Elizabeth, Ryscavage argued for a formal chaplaincy program in INS facilities with dedicated space for pastoral care and counseling. Meissner agreed that the Elizabeth incident could probably have been avoided had there been a religious coordinator in place.

There is a tentative agreement to establish a chaplaincy service on a trial basis at facilities where Jesuit Refugee Service operates: at San Pedro and Mira Loma, Calif., El Paso, Texas, Queens, N.Y. and Elizabeth.

The offending lesson: ‘I was in prison...’
In the offending Bible study session, after reading Matthew 25: 31-46, where Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I as in prison and you visited me,” detainees at the Elizabeth, N.J., Dentention Center for asylum seekers were invited to comtemplate the following questions:
1. If your case were going to be heard by Jesus as your judge, how would you prepare?
2. Do you think a whole nation can be judged by these standards? And do you think the country you come from will play any role in how God judges you?
3. Which one of these acts of kindness (in Matthew 25) do you think is practised least?
4. Would you want to be judged by these standards? Why or Why not?
5. What would you say to the people of the United States in ralation to this reading?

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000