I spent twenty-seven months in Federal prison from 2013 to 2015. I was very fortunate that my sentence was relatively brief, and even more fortunate that my family and friends supported me and visited me during my incarceration. I was blessed to have a multitude of loved one’s travel from my family’s hometown in San Diego and elsewhere to visit me a couple of times a month at the Federal Prison in Florence, Colorado. These visits and the contact from the “rest of the world” made my incarceration bearable, and more importantly, reminded me that people still cared about me.
The reality is that most men and women in prison and jails have very little contact or connection to the “outside world”. In fact, it is all too common for prisoners to not receive visitors from the outside for years at a time. Religious programming does more than provide spiritual support for our incarcerated citizens, as the volunteers, both clergy and laity, are often the only connection that prisoners have with the rest of the world. Even though I was most fortunate to have numerous visits during my own incarceration, I still very much looked forward to visits by clergy and religious volunteers. At the Federal Prison in Florence, a Catholic Deacon visited once a month to provide a Eucharistic service, and Catholic Priest visited once per month to celebrate Holy Mass.
These visits by ordained clergy were the highlights of the month for me and many of my fellow Catholic inmates. In addition, I participated in a weekly Bible study with my Protestant brothers; this Bible study was led by a married couple from Colorado Springs that would faithfully come into the prison every Thursday night for a couple of hours. The clergy and the laity by their very presence reminded us that we still mattered, that someone cared for us. We as Catholic men were able to receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, and our Protestant brothers had guides to assist with the understanding of Sacred Scripture. The dedicated prison ministry volunteers were our window to “life on the other side of the fences and walls.”
I have been working for the Diocese of San Diego for five and half years, and my office is responsible for the Catholic religious programming in twenty-four jails, prisons, and detention facilities in the two most southern counties in California, San Diego and Imperial. These detention facilities house more than twenty-five thousand inmates, and it is estimated that fifteen thousand of the prisoners identify as Catholic. If our diocesan prison population was a parish then it would be one of the largest parishes in the diocese. Our ministry and its’ volunteers are focused on presence and accompaniment. I have learned from my own “lived experience” of incarceration that just “showing up” to be with the inmates is the most important first step in demonstrating that our Catholic community cares for them.
One of our long-time Catholic volunteers for our highest level of security juvenile detention facility told me a story about the impact of presence in our ministry. His assigned day of ministry is Sunday afternoons where he leads a Bible study and discussion among the young men that are at this particular juvenile detention facility. On the Superbowl Sunday 2020, weeks before the COVID pandemic shuttered our jails and prisons to religious program, he showed up at his normal time. The boys had the option of watching the Superbowl or participating in religious programming per the facility schedule. As you would expect, almost all of the young men decided to watch the Superbowl, except for three boys. Our Catholic volunteer asked them why they decided to come to Bible study instead of watching the Superbowl, and they simply replied, “you come here every Sunday to be with us, we did not think it was right for you to sit alone after you came all this way to see us.” You see, presence does matter!
Prison and jail ministry is a special calling. One of the seven corporal works of mercy is to “visit the imprisoned.” We may not all have the capacity or the time to join a prison ministry group to accompany those who are currently incarcerated. Perhaps we do have the time to be a part of an inmate pen pal program to provide spiritual support and council via letter writing. Maybe we are not ready for that type of pen pal ministry as well. What can we do? We as Catholics can all pray for our incarcerated men and women, believing that they possess the same dignity and receive the same amount of God’s grace as we that are not in prison or jail. We can all accompany our incarcerated citizens in prayer and “agapeic love” understanding that we are in communion with them regardless of the fences and the walls that may separate us from everyday encounters.
The above reflection was written by Bobby Ehnow, Ph.D.. He is the Director for the Office for Life, Peace and Justice at the Diocese of San Diego. He is an adjunct faculty member at San Diego State University’s School of Public Affairs and Santa Clara University’s School of Arts and Sciences. He is President of the Board for the Restorative Justice Mediation Program (RJMP).
Join CPMC on December 1st for Restored by Compassion: Given & Received, a virtual conference to gather ministers, volunteers, and supporters of prison, jail, reentry, and detention ministries. Come listen to others’ stories of transformational ministry, rooted in compassion and the Gosepl call to accompany others. Featuring Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, Bp. Bill Wack, CSC, and other leaders, participants will find inspiration and meaningful opportunities to grow in their ministry and support others doing this important work.