By Maureen Smith
There are 16 correctional facilities in the Diocese of Jackson and precious few people working to minister to the Catholic inmates. Those who do visit the imprisoned are inviting anyone willing to step forward and undergo training for this ministry.
“I don’t call it a ministry, I call it doing what the Lord tells you,” said Lee Grillo, who visits women at the state facility in Rankin County. She started out 30 years ago teaching a quilting class to women in the prison in Parchman, but now lives in Jackson. She says her years of visiting have been good for her spiritual development, saying the women in prison have taught her how to be a better Christian.
“It is not scary. I’m not going to tell you some of the women don’t deserve to be there, but they are some of the most prayerful women you will ever come across,” said Grillo. She said many of those incarcerated are just regular people who have made a mistake and need to stay connected to their faith while they face the consequences of their actions.
Raymond Barry, who coordinates visits for a group at Jackson St. Richard Parish agreed. “It’s just that these are people who have done something that has caused them to be separated from their families and friends. They are still the same people you might see in a restaurant or around town,” he said.
Both Barry and Grillo bring Communion to the prisons and lead other devotions such as Bible studies, watching DVDs or praying together. The inmates run their own Communion services, the visitors just provide the Eucharist and stay for fellowship and study.
Marvin Edwards works full time in his unpaid position as the Catholic services coordinator at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. He even has an office in the facility, which he visits six times a month. He goes into the different units to offer services and different ministries. In addition to offering Communion and religious reading materials, Edwards said he tries to give the inmates writing paper and envelopes so they can keep in touch with family or even just to write him letters. Sometimes, he said, he brings simple toiletries as well.
He said most of the prisons in the state are privately run and that’s where Catholics get few visitors. When inmates are transferred from Parchman to a private prison they often contact Edwards to say they have no access to Catholic ministry at all. No reconciliation, no Eucharist, no rosary, no fellowship or conversation.
Edwards said just a few hours a month can make a huge difference to an inmate. “Compassion, that’s what they want. They want someone they can trust to talk to and to be open with,” he said. “They have so much time to read and study, but they are isolated in their study,” he explained. “When you are in the system you are always vulnerable to being taken advantage of so they are always on guard. They have questions so they need someone they can ask,” he added.
Edwards hopes to expand his ministry to those who have just been released from prison. He hopes to gather people and resources to start some sort of program or half-way house to help people re-integrate into society once they are released from prison. “When they get out, for many of them their families are gone or far away, their friends are gone, they are basically just dropped off,” he said. This effort is just in the organizing stage, so look for updates as plans become more concrete.
Those who want to visit prisoners must undergo a background check and take a short orientation course, usually a three to four hour process. There is a June 18 deadline for the August training in Rankin county. Edwards said there is a class in Parchman sometime in July. Both Barry and Edwards would be happy to help anyone get the process started for any prison in the diocese.
By Maureen Smith