September 3, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 22
Father Tim Drake
Priest brings the Church to prison inmates
One Saturday every month, Father Tim Drake arrives at Wallens Ridge maximum security state prison carrying a paper sack. Inside the sack are a paper cup, paper plate, paper napkin, three ziplock bags and a hymnal — everything he needs to celebrate Mass.
In a small room assigned to him, the priest arranges the items on a folding table, transforming it into an altar. The paper cup becomes a chalice, the plate a paten, the napkin an altar cloth. No glass or metals are permitted to be brought inside the prison.
When the time comes, Father Drake will pour water and wine from their respective ziplock bags and distribute communion hosts from the other. Inmates are not allowed to drink the consecrated wine, he said later.
“Security is the number one concern here. Everything else is second to that,” he explained.
Not so for the Catholic inmates, however — at least not when they come for Mass. Their primary intention is to spend time with Jesus.
“The inmates really believe that Christ comes to be with them,” Father Drake said. “They know from the Bible that Christ loves the poor, and they’ve read the scriptures that say, ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ They really believe that and it means so much to them.”
Father Drake has been visiting the prisons in the southwest region of Virginia since he was first assigned to parishes in Norton and Coeburn in 2001. In recent years, as other priests have been unable to share the duties, he has become the sole priestly minister for the area’s three maximum-security state prisons as well as the federal penitentiary in Lee County.
Justin Reilly, coordinator of prison ministry for the Richmond Diocese, said, “I’m grateful that we have a priest like Father Tim who is so committed that he makes time to visit four prisons in addition to the four parishes he pastors.”
A priest of 41 years, Father Drake sees the small group of Catholic prisoners in each facility as a congregation that prays and worships together, not unlike a small church, and he makes a point of reminding his parishes of the inmates’ presence — and of their spiritual needs.
“Most of the towns around here themselves are only a few thousand people or less,” he explained, “and then you realize there’s another high population — thousands — behind bars in this area. But it’s like they’re invisible.
“They are so separated, and unless you visit the prisons, it’s hard to understand the culture and how strong are these individuals’ feelings of guilt and their desire for forgiveness,” he said.
“So I try to convey their circumstances and spiritual needs to parishioners and also explain that the inmates need to know we are concerned,” he explained.
While pastoring a cluster of parishes in Norton, Big Stone Gap, Jonesville and Clintwood, Father Drake’s prison ministry currently consists of visiting Keen Mountain Correctional Center, another high security state facility, along with Wallens Ridge and Lee County federal penitentiary.
Until six months ago, he also served inmates at the state’s only supermax, Red Onion Prison, but he explained that he no longer visits there because there are not enough Catholic inmates to meet the prison’s requirement for a religious service.
He celebrates Mass three times a month at the federal prison, with Mr. Reilly leading a communion service the other week.
The state prisons, he noted, are not as supportive of ministry and he offers Mass once a month at Wallens Ridge and only every other month at Keen Mountain. He estimates there are about 10 regular participants at Mass in each facility.
“I personally enjoy seeing them,” Father Drake smiled, noting that he gets somewhat frustrated when regular participants are not allowed to attend liturgy because of a lockdown or a problem on their cellblock.
He has limited time with inmates who are quickly shuttled back into the prison routine as soon as Mass is over. One-to-one counsel, although not often sought, must be done briefly in a corner of the room, he explained. At such times, he said reverently, “I just listen. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in their circumstances.”
The Mass celebration seems to be where Catholic convicts can find spiritual nourishment, and Father Drake noted several ways that takes place.
“Usually their upbringing wasn’t very good so they don’t have a strong background,” he explained. “But they know they are Catholic and identify with the faith.”
He laughed when he mentioned that while some inmates are “intent” during liturgy, others talk to each other throughout Mass.
“I just let it go. They’re here and they’re involved, but for some of them it’s their only opportunity to visit with each other. I feel it’s part of the service I provide.”
Although a few inmates have discussed serious personal struggles with him, Father Drake said he’s rarely asked to hear a confession. But the depth of inmates’ spiritual concerns most often surface during the prayers of the faithful.
“Sometimes they like to share and they often minister to each other as it becomes more of a conversation,” he explained.
“Their issues mostly deal with guilt and seeking forgiveness. I think they want to know that Christ forgives them. Just looking around is a constant reminder that ‘I did something wrong,’ and they know that society sees this.”
In coming together for prayer and worship, Father Drake said, “I’ve seen that they feel closer to God than before.
“In such a difficult environment, their faith sustains them. They also struggle knowing that they are not there for their children, or their parents may be ill and they are not able to help in any way. So they pray. They pray for their family members, for other inmates, for the guards.”
The experience has enriched the priest’s faith as well.
“What forever amazes me is how Christ always wants to be with us wherever we are — even locked in a prison,” he said.
In the course of his regular visits, Father Drake also ministers to guards and employees at the prisons, usually through informal encounters. Often he sees inmates’ families, as well, when they come to visit.
Observing such varied experiences of prison culture gives him a good picture of its effects and human costs.
“It’s a very difficult environment — very stressful,” he said. “You can feel the tensions when you go inside and hear the doors click behind you, especially when the dogs are out and barking.”
For prison staff, including a few members of his parishes, he added, “I can understand the difficulty of working behind locked bars all day, because I know what a relief even I feel when I come out.”
Tensions are heightened by other cultural differences, he pointed out, with the region’s prison employees being mostly rural white and the inmate population having a sizable percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics from urban areas.
Prison Ministry Sunday
The Diocese of Richmond will celebrate Prison Ministry Sunday on September 23. The observance is a time to pray for those affected by crime, to celebrate our committed and compassionate volunteers throughout the diocese and to invite parishioners to participate in this life-giving ministry.
Those interested in celebrating Prison Ministry Sunday at their parish are asked to contact Justin Reilly for further details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Father Drake’s ministry in the southwest region is part of an active prison ministry throughout the entire diocese. The majority of those involved are lay persons, Mr. Reilly said, adding that there are notable “concentrations of committed prison ministers” in Richmond and Virginia Beach.
“It’s been my experience that prison ministry folks, across the board, are among the most committed, passionate people I’ve come across,” he said. Their work includes a range of offerings, including liturgy of the Word, Bible study, re-entry preparation, life skills classes and mentoring.
They serve in some of Virginia’s 30 state prisons as well as in federal facilities and local jails. Mr. Reilly said the diocese’s role is to coordinate.
“If someone is interested in doing prison ministry, then we can connect them with the appropriate prison chaplain who then guides them through the approval process.”
That process, which ministers must complete to be allowed to visit in a corrections facility, is time-consuming and so may deter some people from becoming involved, Mr. Reilly pointed out.
“But those who go through with it usually stay (in prison ministry) a long time. They walk out of those prisons with some pretty profound stories.”