By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Prison ministers for the Diocese of Jackson are taking their work outside the cells thanks to a new initiative meant to help people adjust to life after incarceration. The program is called Getting Ahead While Getting Out and it starts months before an inmate is released. The idea is to help someone gain some life skills and start building a support network before they ever leave prison.
On Saturday, May 19, Marvin Edwards, who coordinates prison ministry for the diocese, and Daughter of Charity Sister Madeline Kavanagh will host a training at Flowood St. Paul Parish for people who want to be facilitators in the Getting Ahead While Getting Out program. Anyone is welcome to attend – including non-Catholics – but the workshop is primarily for people who already have clearance to visit prisons. Everyone needs to register.
Photo courtesy of Bickstock
Edwards and Sister Kavanagh are collaborating on the new program. It is a relationship-based model for reintegration. Facilitators will meet with small groups of inmates in the months before their parole to prepare them for their life after release. “They have a workbook and they answer questions such as ‘how did I get here, what factors contributed to my situation,’ things like that,” said Sister Kavanagh. The participants learn how to manage finances, how to seek a job and how to build a support network. According to the program website, a large percentage of released convicts will get into trouble within days of release. Often, they return to old habits or they simply don’t know how to start a new life.
“There are so many inmates that are there simply because they didn’t know any better. They didn’t have any background – any roots. They are very intelligent. Don’t get me wrong, there are some in prison who don’t need to get out, but the majority of them could change if they had the opportunity,” said Edwards, who has been a prison minister for years in Mississippi. He said the prison system does not offer inmates the opportunity to transform their lives. “Lots of them just messed up. They were teenagers and they end up in prison for 20, 30 years. When they get out, they don’t know what to do,” he added.
This program, said Sister Kavanagh, gets them to start to think critically. “The woman who started it was a real educator. She realized we are always going in and telling people how to live their lives and that doesn’t work. Participants in this program are considered investigators,” explained Sister Kavanagh. “The facilitators don’t tell them what to do, the participant goes through his or her own program,” she said. The inmates take control of their own lives. The program materials refer to the participants as ‘returning citizens’ to help them see themselves in a new way.
“We are looking for people who can listen and accompany these prisoners as they go through the process,” she said. “When they are thinking out loud and being listened to, they find their own power and their own wisdom. They realize they have all this potential,” she added. In addition to facilitators, Sister Kavanaugh said the program will need community partners.
“We hope people realize that the people coming out of prison have not had the advantages that many others have had. They need support. They need people who can be mentors, who can help them get jobs, who will welcome them into the parish,” she said.
The training takes a few months to complete. While facilitators are being trained, Edwards will make contact with the individual prisons to lay the groundwork for the program. He already has support from the prison system. He believes it’s because the program is free for the prisons, and has the potential to save the state money by reducing recidivism. He hopes to have it up and running in February of 2019. Those interested in the training can call Marvin Edwards at (601)594-8254 or Sister Madeline Kavanagh at (213)215-6103.
By Father Frank Cosgrove
MERIDIAN – “I was a prisoner and you visited me . . . as long as you did it for one of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:36-40)
Ministry to prisoners is nothing new for the Catholic Community of Meridian. From 1985-1995 Tom and Joanne Zettler were one of nine families in Meridian who opened their home to prisoners sponsored by the Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by Chuck Colson.
Prisoners who were still incarcerated would go to the Zettler’s home for a two-week work program. During the day, the prisoners, who were incarcerated for non-violent crimes and were within one year of being released, were assigned to a work project. Tom Zettler told me that they never had problems with the prisoners and that their nine children learned a lot about living their faith.
“These men fully realized that they owed a debt to society. They were willing to pay the debt and continue their lives with God as their leader,” said Zettler. The Zettlers receive Christmas and Easter cards every year from some of the former prisoners. The program was very successful with a recidivism rate of almost zero, according to Zettler. Frequently the prisoners in the program visited Meridian High School and shared their stories with students, hoping to prevent them from committing crimes.
The Catholic Community of St. Joseph and St. Patrick continues to minister to prisoners incarcerated at the nearby Lost Gap Correctional Facility. For more than 16 years, Dudley Valentine and Mike Lundstrom have visited prisoners and led prayer services. Mike Lundstrom continues the ministry and is now joined by John Maloney, Daniel Pittman and Ken Woodward. We began an RCIA process at the prison in 2011. Since then 26 prisoners have been initiated into the Catholic Church.
On May 21, Bishop Joseph Kopacz received seven prisoners into the church during Mass at the prison. The bishop was accompanied by myself and associate pastor Father José de Jesús Sánchez as well as Deacon Jason Johnston and seminarian Nick Adam. Adam was part of the ministry team before entering the seminary.
“It seems like the men who are locked away have a deep desire for God and, in this case, a deep desire for the sacraments. It was very inspirational to be part of their initiation into the church through baptism, confirmation and Eucharist,” Deacon Johnston noted.
In addition to RCIA, Maloney, Pittman, Woodward and Lundstrom lead a Word and Communion Service weekly and Father Sánchez celebrates Mass once a month. Father Sánchez and I celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation each Advent, Lent and by request. I reassure the prisoners that while they are paying their debt to the state, God is merciful and forgiving and that He accepts and loves them, no matter what crimes they have committed.The prison ministry team has wonderful rapport with the staff and prisoners because they treat them with dignity and respect. Chaplain John Newbaker, a Baptist minister and pastor, is very cooperative and helpful.
Chaplain Newbaker told Deacon Johnston that the Catholic prison ministry at East Mississippi Correctional Facility is one of the most organized, well-rounded ministries at the prison and that the four Catholic volunteers who go there weekly for ministry, work together like a well-oiled machine.
“The ministry, which started only two months after the prison opened in April 1999, with Valentine, was one of the first ministries there,” Newbaker said. “Pastor Cosgrove, along with the other associated pastors, deacons and volunteers have done an excellent job representing the Catholic Community of Meridian. I look forward to them coming each week for service with the offenders.” We are happy for the zeal and commitment of our Prison Ministry Team and the Catholic Community which supports them.
John Maloney loves prison ministry and said he will do it as long as he can walk and drive and he has told the prisoners that. “They prayed hard for me when I had esophageal cancer and I appreciate that. I started ministry to prisoners in 2008 and we started the RCIA process in 2011.”
(Father Cosgrove is the pastor of the Catholic Community of Meridian)
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.