Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

There are members of parishes in the Diocese of Richmond that typically pass unnoticed, unseen. They are unable to come to Mass. Any contact they have with the outside world is, in fact, limited. They are the approximately 60,000 inmates held in Virginia’s federal, state, county and city prisons and detention centers.

Although some might classify the incarcerated as “out of sight, out of mind,” the Diocese of Richmond is making broader efforts to ensure that it does not prove true. 

The diocese’s solution is a two-tiered approach — making certain each prison is matched with a parish so that local volunteers can address the needs of its own, unique community, while the diocesan office provides resources and support. 

Ministering to prisoners can prove challenging even for the most dedicated of volunteers as each facility might have its own set of rules and guidelines, making standardization difficult. 

“We want to make sure that each facility has some sort of Catholic presence,” Rachael Laustrup, associate director of the diocese’s Office of Social Ministry, said. “We are here to fill the gaps — to connect people throughout the diocese with resources and to connect them with one another.”

This year, the diocese included prison ministry as a part of its Annual Diocesan Appeal, committing $10,000 to that form of outreach. Michael School, director of the Office of Social Ministries, said his office plans to hold a conference, gathering volunteers from across the commonwealth for the first time in order to provide training and to share ideas. 

The diocese’s long-term goal, Laustrup said, is to take a holistic approach to incarceration — one that includes everything from creating job readiness programs to advocating against the death penalty. 

Prison ministry may be only one small part of the solution, but, as volunteers throughout the diocese can attest, it is one of which anyone can be a part.

Building a sense of community

One Friday night, David Stroud and Fred Barger, two volunteers from St. Stephen, Martyr, Chesapeake, walked through a narrow passage of chain-link fence, topped with towering spirals of barbed wire, where dozens of sparrows flitted amid the metal coils. 

Stroud and Barger are a part of a core group of six volunteers from St. Stephen who visit St. Brides Correctional Center — a state prison located just a few miles from their church — on Tuesdays and Fridays. Father Brian Rafferty, pastor at St. Stephen, accompanies the volunteers one Tuesday a month to celebrate Mass.  

As the inmates filed in one by one, Stroud and Barger set up pictures around the meeting room, preparing it for the Stations of the Cross. Stroud has been coming to St. Brides for more than four years, so, to him, the rules are second nature.  

“We aren’t allowed to block the windows,” he explained, searching for a more creative place to prop the pictures rather than using the edge of the window sill. 

Once the group was assembled, the inmates took turns reading from passages dramatizing the Stations of the Cross from the Blessed Virgin’s point of view.  

“It was early Friday morning when I saw my son,” one inmate began, “That was the first glimpse I had of him since they took him away.” 

During a discussion session afterward, the group talked about misconceptions non-Catholics often have about the Catholic Church, the most ubiquitous of which being the idea that Catholic beliefs are not biblically-based. 

This led one inmate to point out that a sign-up sheet he had once seen for prison ministry listed two choices: “Catholic” or “Christian.” 

  “I thought it made it look as if Catholics aren’t Christians,” he said. 

The conversation then turned to the overall lack of a Catholic presence in prison ministries in general; the principal reason for this, they agreed, lies in the tendency for Catholics to be less evangelical than Protestants.

One inmate, Geraldo, had a suggestion as to how Catholics might make the best use of the programs that are in place. 

  “If resources are limited, I would say that where a ministry is most needed is in the jails — that’s where people have the most stress, that’s where you don’t know what’s going to happen to you.  By the time they are in the prisons, for many, it’s already too late — you’ve lost them,” he said. 

Do’s and don’ts

Bob Vaughn, director of the Jubilee House, a diocesan retreat center in Abingdon, also found a need for a Catholic presence in Virginia’s prisons when he first went to inquire about volunteering at River North Correctional Center, a state prison in Independence. 

“At first, they told me they had enough people coming in already, but when I told them I was Catholic, they said, ‘Oh, well that makes a difference,’” he explained. While there were many Protestant ministers coming into the prison, there were no Catholic volunteers. 

Vaughn, a parishioner of Holy Spirit, Christiansburg, drives two hours one way about once a week to River North. 

“The biggest challenge is getting the paperwork done,” he said. 

State prisons in Virginia are ranked from security level 1, which includes work centers and field crews, through level 5, with one facility, Red Onion, classified as a maximum-security center. River North is classified as a level 4. 

Vaughn said that Father Tim Drake, a retired priest, celebrates Mass at all of the prisons in the area. Many of the priests in the southwest part of the state are foreign-born, he explained, and they often face even greater hurdles with security. 

“It’s almost like there are 10 commandments of things you can and can’t do,” Vaughn said. 

One issue of which prison ministers must be mindful, Vaughn explained, pertains to the color of items brought into the prison. 

“Rosaries, for example — they need to be either white or black. You need to avoid colors like red and blue, which have gang associations and might be used as emblems,” he said.  

At River North, 21 people are signed up for Catholic services. This past March, three prisoners completed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program there.

“We had two baptisms, three confirmations and three first Communions,” Vaughn said. 

“They appreciate it when I come in. Most of them are there from five to 10 years, so they can easily become isolated. They appreciate just knowing what’s going on in the world,” he said. 

Advocacy a group effort

Although each parish-prison relationship is unique, some things can be accomplished only when people across the commonwealth work together to reach one goal. 

Renee McCarthy, a parishioner at Church of the Holy Family, Virginia Beach, explained that Holy Family’s prison ministry volunteers strive to keep three tenants in mind: outreach — visiting inmates in prison; education — making certain that volunteers are kept up-to-date regarding issues of prison justice; and advocacy. 

Advocacy, McCarthy explained, entails not only helping those within the system, but working to change the system itself, making sure it is as just and fair as possible. 

“You can pray for the poor, you can pray for those in prison,” McCarthy said. “But you also need to ask the questions: Why are so many people poor? Why are so many people in prison?”  

The group participated in a letter-writing campaign last year urging Virginia state legislators to raise the threshold of what constitutes felony theft in Virginia from $200 to $1,000. 

A felony conviction follows a person for life; people who have been convicted of a felony are often required to disclose the fact when applying for a job, making it difficult for people to get a fresh start or to escape the cycle of poverty. 

Vaughn said that several parishes in the western part of the state, including Holy Spirt, Christiansburg, participated in the campaign as well. 

“As it was, someone might swipe a cell phone, and if it’s valued at $200, that’s it — you’re marked as a felon,” he explained. 

In 2018, the Virginia General Assembly voted to raise the threshold from $200 — one of the lowest in the nation — to $500. 

“That’s where it takes a group effort,” McCarthy said, “when it comes to making changes across the state. Maybe not everyone feels they can go into the prisons, but anyone can write a letter.” 

Encountering the Holy Spirit

“The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population,” said Michael Siedlecki, a parishioner at St. Stephen, Martyr, “and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.”  If inmates don’t receive help and support during their incarceration and after their release, all too often, he noted, they end up right back in prison. 

Siedlecki has been involved in various prison ministries since 1997. He travels 80 miles one way, once a week, to visit Greenville Correctional Center in Jarratt. He also works alongside other volunteers from St. Stephen to facilitate Kairos weekend retreats at the state prison.

Kairos is a lay-led, interdenominational program that was born out of the Cursillo movement in 1976.  The St. Stephen prison ministry has held Karios weekends at Greenville twice a year for the past for six years; volunteers completed their 13th retreat there this past March. 

A few weeks before the retreat, prison ministry volunteers appeal to parishioners at St. Stephen to bake cookies, write notecards and ask their children to draw placemats. The cookies must be homemade and prayed over, Siedlecki said. These glimmers of the outside world, he explained, can mean a lot to those who are incarcerated. 

Each retreat has space for 42 inmates. 

“We ask for the gang leaders because they are the ones who might carry the message onward, who might have an influence on others,” Siedlecki said. 

The difference the program makes in the lives of those who participate, he added, is what draws him to return year after year. 

“I get a front row seat, watching 42 inmates encountering the Holy Spirit. And, it turns out, they aren’t very formidable opponents.” 

Opening doors

“We’re just scattering seeds,” Siedlecki said. “Who knows where they will get rooted?”

It’s a sentiment echoed by volunteers throughout the diocese. While background checks and paperwork can be a hurdle, those willing to walk through the fence can find a place in prison ministry. Those who have made this commitment see their service as a reminder to the incarcerated that they are still part of the broader community, that they are not alone. 

At St. Brides, one man, Reginald, attested to the fact that something as simple as having someone new to greet can make a difference in a day of the life of someone who is in prison. 

Reginald said he began attending Catholic services after running into a group of volunteers who were on their way to the meeting rooms, week after week.  

“They were always so warm in greeting me that I started to go to their meetings,” he said. 

He eventually completed an RCIA program at St. Brides and joined the Church in 2017. 

“And I’ve been strong in my faith ever since. I’ve never been so close to God,” he said. 

During the Stations of the Cross at St. Brides, Reginald recited the passage for the 15th station. 

“What emptiness I felt trying to live without him whom I loved so,” he read. “But, only two days later, that emptiness was filled beyond belief — he had risen! Our savior had opened the doors to a new life.” 

Editor’s note: For more information about prison ministry in the Diocese of Richmond, call 804-359-5661.

Jesus invites us to ‘judge no one’

The following is from Pope Francis’ general audience talk, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in Saint Peter’s Square.

By including the act of visiting of those in prison among the works of mercy, (Jesus) wanted first and foremost to invite us to judge no one. Of course, if someone is in prison it is because he has done wrong and did not respect the law or civil harmony. Therefore, in prison, he is serving his sentence. However, whatever a detainee may have done, he remains always beloved by God. 

Who is able to enter the depths of [an inmate’s] conscience to understand what he is experiencing? Who can understand his suffering and remorse? 

It is too easy to wash our hands, declaring that he has done wrong. A Christian is called, above all, to assume responsibility, so that whoever has done wrong understands the evil he has carried out and returns to his senses. 

The absence of freedom is, without a doubt, one of the hardest pills for a human being to swallow. Add this to degradation arising from the conditions which are often devoid of humanity in which these persons live, it is then truly the case in which a Christian is motivated to do everything to restore his dignity.

Visiting people in prison is a work of mercy which, especially today, takes on a particular value due to the various forms of “justicialism” to which we are exposed. Therefore, let no one point a finger at another. Instead, let us all be instruments of mercy, and have attitudes of sharing and respect. 

I often think about detainees… I think of them often; I carry them in my heart. I wonder what led them to delinquency, and how they managed to succumb to various forms of evil. Yet, along with these thoughts, I feel that they all need closeness and tenderness, because God’s mercy works wonders. 

How many tears I have seen shed on the cheeks of prisoners who had perhaps never wept before in their lives; and this is only because they feel welcomed and loved.

And let us not forget that even Jesus and his Apostles experienced imprisonment. In the account of the Passion, we know of the suffering which the Lord endured: captured, dragged about like a criminal, derided, scourged, crowned with thorns…. He, the sole Innocent!