From behind bars

First slide

"When Prisoners Come Home," a conference co-sponsored by the diocesan Catholic Charities' Prison Ministry Program and the Fairfax Aftercare Program of Truro Church, was held last Sunday at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

Sister of Notre Dame de La Salette Sister Connie Parcasio, event organizer and director of prison ministry for Catholic Charities, introduced speakers Father Michael Bryant, chaplain of the D.C. Detention Facility and past chairman of the National Convocation of Jail and Prison Ministries; Shirley Coffield, founder and administrator of the Fairfax Aftercare Program; Lori McCormick of Prison Fellowship Ministries and volunteer with Loudoun Aftercare Program; Will Wilson, director of re-entry and outreach of Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR) of Arlington; and Brandon Cosby, director of programs of Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources (OAR) of Fairfax.

More than 50 people attended the seminar, which focused on the issue of newly released prisoners re-entering society and the vital role volunteers play in assuring their successful future.

There are currently 2.4 million people imprisoned in the United States, with about 650,000 released each year. Without community support, many return to old destructive habits and end up back in jail.

"Just as toddlers need the help of stronger persons to support them lest they fall, so also the released offenders need the support of stronger persons to walk the difficult road to transition until they can be on their own," Sister Connie said in her opening remarks. "Without this help, it is more likely that they will fall back again - in no time."

Sister Connie said that there are approximately 38,000 people jailed in Northern Virginia. She stressed the importance of Church programs for the incarcerated and the need for more volunteers to "get them in touch with their relationships with themselves, with others and with God.

"Our Catholic programs offer one-on-one visiting where volunteers listen and pray, and help them reflect on their lives in a mentoring process," said Sister Connie. "Bible services, catechetical programs, Scriptural reflections and meditation on the love and mercy of God, prayer services, Masses and confessions are included."

Volunteer support must continue after inmates are freed into society for a positive future outcome, said Father Bryant, keynote speaker, who has worked in prison ministry for 30 years. He stressed the importance of helping individuals secure "a job, a place to live and pro-social community involvement."

"If they don't get support, we know that 67 percent of the re-entering population will fail to re-enter and within three years, will violate rules of parole and commit another crime, and half will be re-institutionalized," said Father Bryant.

He cited the racial disparities represented in prisons, "which society needs to address." About 49 percent of those behind bars are African American, 15 percent are Hispanic and on the rise reflecting demographic trends. The remaining 36 percent is made up of Native Americans, Caucasians and Asians. With only 12 percent of African Americans in U.S. society, with an unemployment rate of 20 percent, as compared to the overall unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, Father Bryant said not having work leads to "idleness, boredom and the risk of getting into trouble."

In Washington and Montgomery County, where Father Bryant has worked, the Welcome Home Reentry Program has proven that mentoring is the key in helping former inmates succeed once they are released. Through social and spiritual support, individuals are able to handle the challenges they face in reintegrating into mainstream society.

"We know mentoring works," said Father Bryant. "It works with kids in school, with individualized attention a child improves."

He said that mentoring also works with Big Brother, Big Sister programs, where the youngster mirrors the pro-social behavior of the adult. It works with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), in the RCIA program in the Church where everyone has a sponsor. Mentoring is crucial for success in this "challenging ministry."

In the Arlington Diocese, there are 26 jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers. Sister Connie said that Catholics visit all but six, where volunteers are desperately needed, including Culpeper County Jail, Loudoun County Juvenile Detention Center in Leesburg, Page County Jail in Luray, Warren Jail in Front Royal, Western Virginia Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Winchester and White Post Diversion Center in White Post. Both Spanish and English speaking volunteers are needed.

Sister Connie said that prison ministry is a "ministry of presence," witnessing Gospel values, the Church's social teachings on the sacredness and dignity of human life.

Shirley Coffield, former international trade lawyer, founder and administrator of the Fairfax Aftercare Program, trains local volunteers, including ones sent to her by Sister Connie. This comprehensive training includes the development of listening skills, substance abuse training, and the use of Christian faith in mentoring. Three months before their release, inmates meet with their mentor and continue after their release for six months.

"In local jails, 75-80 percent are there because of addiction issues," said Coffield. "If people get into a faith community, statistics flip," said Coffield. "Only 18-19 percent go back."

She said that people should not be afraid to try working in prison ministry if they feel they are being called.

"Don't worry because God is in control of their life," Coffield explained. "It's about your ability to help another human being become the kind of person our Lord wants them to be."

She said the mentor benefits as much, or more, than the one mentored.

"This is your going into jail and being blessed, and being a blessing to someone," Coffield said.

Socarras is a freelance writer from Annandale.

How to help

ccda.net/programs_prison.php or call Sister Connie Parcasio, S.N.D.S, at 703/841-3832

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009