(Part 2 of 2)
The environment in jails especially crowded ones, is NOT conducively healthy for everyone, as one can witness the very militaristic or sometimes inhumane treatment of people. The 1994 movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, is an excellent portrayal of what can happen in prison. After years of going to jail weekly, I am no longer surprised why some inmates devise ways to escape (a year or so ago three jail mates escaped). The sad environment also contributes to the deputies’ attitude becoming callous and less compassionate as many inmates are also foul-mouthed, and ill mannered who can hurt or kill others given the opportunity. Many deputies and employees request transfers and do not wish to work there for until they retire. Although the deputies may be bored to death and may become mean individuals, their salaries may reach six figures in a year with almost unlimited overtime. Not bad for many non-college graduates who work in jails and in prisons.
There is a set schedule and specific classrooms for us ministers to go. The deputy-in-charge sends any group of inmates from specific mods or clusters to attend, randomly may be. We never know who are attending our classes until they sign up in our attendance sheet. We seldom have inmates who attend our classes for many months, unlike in a state prison where their incarcerations are more definite and much longer. In state or federal institutions, a prisoner is often given an opportunity to study, or learn a skill in preparation for his life after serving his sentence.
Where I am assigned — Intake and Release Center (IRC) — the inmates are in transition awaiting or undergoing trials until they are released or transferred to another institution. It’s a very busy place, where families can only visit/talk to the inmates but separated by a thick glass that even mothers and their children cannot even touch each other!
Most of the time, my “class” is composed of women who are not in solitary confinement, about five to 15. (Occasionally, only one comes as she is in a solitary or protective custody). From time to time, some inmates become excited to be out and are very talkative and want to do what they want to do. I have also learned to “play the game” in order to exact discipline by simply telling them that I can get the deputy to get them out in a minute with just one push on the buzzer in the room, and that warning works everytime!
My assignment is called “Communion and Bible Reading Services,” where I bring the Holy Eucharist (without the wine) and provide discussions of three Bible readings including the Gospel of the last preceding Sunday’s mass. Many of these inmates did not have the opportunity to know their Cathechism. I am no longer surprised, for instance, that many of them do not even know the popular Bible stories, like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the Parable of the Good Seed and Bad Seed (Matthew 13:24), or even the Story of the Passion of Christ, which the practicing Catholic or Christian often takes for granted.
Oftentimes, sharing stories in the Bible and applying those principles or lessons to our lives makes the women quite moved and sometimes emotional. They cry when a story or lesson hit them very hard and deep. Women inmates are generally emotional and can go through transformation faster and easier. Men try hard to maintain their “macho” image yet when they are touched deeply they can also get emotional but not as often as women.
What I find most interesting and fulfilling is hearing the inmates’ own stories or feedbacks to the readings or any comment to my “homilies” and sharing on the Bible readings. Prison ministers teach but we also learn a lot. It is also very revealing to listen intently to their verbalized prayers. I always encourage them to say their prayers aloud, which I started for them to follow. The acronym, A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving & Supplication) has been a big help to most of them. It seems therapeutic to expatiate their feelings and to be outside their “cell” and given the freedom to talk without deputies around them. One must be an effective facilitator to be among these diverse inmates to accomplish our objectives as it could be exploited or monopolized by one or two people.
We, the prison ministers try to prepare as much as we can, but inasmuch as we do not know our “students” every week, we pray and rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide us what to do. We were told that it is not really what we tell them that is the most important or appreciated, but our PRESENCE at that moment of their lives, when even their own family members do not visit them, especially on or around holidays that we are among them. That genuine appreciation the inmates express energizes and motivates many of us keep going to this ministry. I feel truly fulfilled and grateful for this opportunity to put my faith in action as described in the Gospel of Matthew 25:35-40:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
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