Bringing mercy to those in prison
Participants in Jail & Prison Ministry are highlighted
By Dan Russo
MARSHALLTOWN — Stepping into a solitary confinement cell at a county jail, one notices the sterility of the hard concrete walls and bare accommodations — a bunk, a toilet, a desk and a small window, which gives a glimpse of the free world on the streets far below.
Once the heavy metal door shuts, it’s just the prisoner and his or her thoughts for however long the confinement lasts. Prisoners who break rules or have medical or other issues usually end up in solitary cells, and it’s not easy to be there. For some inmates, however, even these tough conditions can lead to spiritual growth.
“In regular population, it can be hard to find privacy for prayer,” reflected Chris Sloan. “Solitary confinement is a blessing for the faithful.”
After serving four years at Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility, Sloan has been released recently and is working to re-build his life in Marshalltown, with the help of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Jail and Prison Ministry. Sloan is a Christian who used being sentenced to prison as an opportunity for renewed focus on his spiritual life.
“I got saved 10-years prior in a non-denominational church,” he said. “The prison was great at accommodating (people of all faiths). They saw what truly faithful inmates were like. They were respectful.”
Sloan says many in prison can succumb to anger or depression, but a relationship with God helped him avoid this.
“I was quickly broken, but I chose to be and I fell into my faith before God,” he said. “I decided to have the right attitude that this was an opportunity for improvement.”
Visits from family and friends are important to most inmates. Clergy visits, in particular, he said, offer an outlet to share anxieties and concerns.
“Family and friend visits are very structured and under close watch,” said Sloan. “Clergy are allowed to come in and there’s no direct surveillance. It’s a safe place for the inmate.”
Before leaving prison, Sloan’s mother, a member of a Catholic parish in the archdiocese, told him about the Jail and Prison Ministry, which offers re-entry assistance. Sloan accepted the help and was put in touch with Deacon Phil Paladino, the assistant coordinator for Catholic Charities’ Jail and Prison Ministry.
“The vast majority of people that are incarcerated are going to come back into their community and we can choose to support them and help them be successful,” said the deacon.
Jail & Prison Ministry Overview
The Jail and Prison Ministry has a small full-time staff and relies on about 200 volunteers around the archdiocese. These personnel visit local county jails and state institutions such as Anamosa State Penitentiary and Luster Heights Correctional Facility, where they offer religious services and spiritual guidance.
There is also a major effort at helping prisoners re-entering society through a one-on-one mentorship program and circles of support and accountability, which offer ex-offenders guidance through group meetings. The charity also offers some material support when needed.
Deacon Paladino is on-call as a member of the clergy for the Black Hawk County Jail and regularly leads Scripture services and Bible study there. Most of the people he sees that are incarcerated are struggling with addiction problems. The ministry has recently expanded in the western areas of the archdiocese.
“One of the things we’d like to do a little more in the future is restorative justice,” said the deacon. “Who was harmed? What needs to be done to make that harm right? It’s recognition of the fact that regardless of what they’ve done, they are all children of God. (Offenders) need to be accountable for their crimes and their sins and we’re also all called to mercy and forgiveness. Once a person has done their time, we have to recognize them as people and welcome them back into the community.”
Deacon Paladino focuses his work in the Waterloo, Ames, Marshalltown, and Mason City areas, while Jail and Prison Ministry Director Deacon Bill Hickson concentrates on Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and the rest of the northeastern part of the archdiocese. The ministry’s history goes back many years, with multiple priests serving as chaplains in prisons. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, deacons and many lay volunteers also began getting involved.
As director, Deacon Hickson spends about 25 percent of his time in prisons and jails, and 75 percent working on re-entry programs. Visiting those in prison is as essential as it ever was to the ministry, according to Deacon Hickson. He visits the State Penitentiary for men weekly to lead an RCIA class, which this year is educating two catechumens and averages about two to six a year.
Archbishop Michael Jackels and several priests share a rotation for celebrating Mass at Anamosa weekly. Deacons Hickson, Bill Biver, and other Catholic volunteers are on a rotation of different religious leaders who offer Scripture services and respond to calls for spiritual guidance at the Dubuque County Jail. Deacon Hickson was ordained in 2007 and has been in Jail and Prison Ministry since 2008.
“I learned very quickly how really welcoming (prisoners) were, how anxious they were to learn about their faith,” he said. “Even though they are physically isolated from the rest of the community, they’re not spiritually isolated. They want to take their place as part of the universal church.”
Chris and Cale
Since Chris Sloan has been released from prison, life has been challenging. He reports that most inmates leave jail with nothing and the first stop is often Good Will for clothes and other basics. Then it can be difficult to pass background checks for housing or employment.
“Coming out, there’s the Scarlet Letter of a felon,” he said. “That’s one of the hardest things.”
In Chris’ case, struggling to overcome an addiction, and reporting regularly under the supervision of a parole officer are other major concerns. But in the midst of all this, he was assigned a volunteer from the Jail and Prison Ministry to serve as his mentor — Cale McKoon.
“I would call Cale the hands and feet of the body (of Christ),” said Sloan. “He really cares for people. I don’t know what I would have done without somebody from outside the legal realm to help me. I could pour my heart out to him. His faith and his walk are so solid. He also made an effort to learn what it was like and what I go through.”
McKoon meets with Sloan regularly to offer emotional and spiritual support and a positive influence outside of the official legal or social services system. He is coordinator for Jail and Prison Ministry in the Marshalltown area. McKoon works with other volunteers from St. Henry and St. Mary Parishes, including Sister Christine Feagan, OP, Deacon Gary Pusillo, and a number of people from the parishes’ large Hispanic membership. The volunteers visit both the men and women at Marshall County Jail every Sunday, as well as serve in the re-entry program. The county is very diverse, with both English and Spanish speaking people, and immigrants from all over the world. The jail reflects this diversity. Scripture services and the activities afterward are conducted bilingually.
“Unfortunately, most of those (foreign-born inmates) are there because of immigration holds,” said Sister Christine, a Domincan. “Those people usually have no documentation, and neither do their spouses. That means, the needs “at home” are great. No income and little, if any communication, since phone calls are expensive. Therefore, a need is for help to the families outside and some financial help to the inmates for their accounts.”
Sister Christine focuses on Hispanic ministry at the parish level and usually goes to the jail when other volunteers are unavailable.
“I receive so much more than what I am able to offer those times that I go to participate in the service of the Word at our county jail,” she said. “It is a blessing to me. Jesus himself told us we are to treat each other with the same love that he has shown us. That’s a tall order, but we can try!”
McKoon also feels he receives as much or more than he gives.
“It’s really kind of unique because we have everyone who grew up in Marshalltown and we have people from many different countries,” said McKoon. “I’ve learned about how the Spirit works and how God loves every single one of us. You start to see people as God sees them. It’s also amazing to see how God works through me to meet the needs of others. Being (at the jail) seeing what people are going through gives me the perspective of how tough this world can be.”
Echoing Sloan’s comments, McKoon used the metaphor of people in prison representing an ill part of the one Body of Christ that needs attention.
“You can take a very hard person and when you show them that love, you see there’s a whole new amazing person inside of them,” said McKoon. “I would encourage everyone to participate in Jail and Prison Ministry. There are all these people that need hope. When we show them the love of Christ, that’s what changes people and restores people.”
Since exiting prison, Sloan has been able to find work and is adjusting to his new life with McKoon’s help. He said ex-offenders need people to listen to them “with neutrality and without judgment” to be successful. He hopes institutions will raise awareness about the re-entry program.
“We need more Cale McKoons in this world,” said Sloan. “I praise and glorify God for putting him in my path. I hope this program grows and expands.”
A Prison Administrator’s Perspective
In Dubuque County, the Sheriff’s Department manages the jail. The facility can hold up to 212 inmates and includes a special section for juveniles. Most people are there for pre-trial detention or for offenses whose punishment is no longer than a year. Because there is a mix of both minor offenders and violent ones, there are multiple levels of security.
Capt. Mike Muenster has been working at the jail for 16-years and is now its administrator and director of juvenile detention. He sees the religious ministries offered in the jail as an important part of an overall effort to rehabilitate inmates.
“A lot of things I personally see with recidivism, it starts in the home,” said Capt. Muenster. “There are broken families and it’s a constant revolving door of criminality.”
Capt. Muenster, who is a member of St. Catherine Parish in the town of St. Catherine, believes supporting young people early is key to preventing future criminal acts and the suffering they cause. He says he has witnessed an influx of juvenile inmates locally and from nearby big cities that are growing up with no parental guidance.
“Reaching kids when they’re young is important,” he said. “We have to reach out to kids in broken homes with no hope,” said the captain.
Sloan, the former inmate, also mentioned that childhood issues lead to problems later in life.
“Most convicts and felons were abused mentally or physically as children,” said Sloan, who believes jails and prisons need to increase funding for rehabilitation efforts.
Juveniles in the Dubuque County Jail attend school every day, and are able to earn their GED through a partnership with a local community college. They can request religious services or visits by clergy. Adults are able to participate in regular Bible studies, prayer services and request visits from religious leaders. The jail also works with the archdiocese to offer Masses for Catholic inmates on Christmas and Easter, according to Muenster.
A set back the jail recently faced to its rehabilitation efforts occurred when an outbreak of bed bugs destroyed many of the books in the jail’s library. Muenster has recently been working with a group of Catholic parishes to address this.
Pastorate to Buy Books
During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, the archdiocese has designated different weeks for service projects dedicated to the corporal works of mercy found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25. This week, Feb. 28-March 5, is dedicated to visiting those in prison.
St. Elizabeth Pastorate, a group of parishes that includes St. Patrick in Epworth, St. Joseph in Farley, St. John the Baptist in Peosta, St. John in Placid, and St. Clement in Bankston, has opted to make an effort to replenish the county jail library.
This week at Masses, there will be a special collection, with the proceeds being used to buy books. The project was conceived after Jane Bechen, the social justice coordinator for the pastorate, called Capt. Muenster to see if there was anything parishioners could do to help inmates. After hearing about the situation with the jail library, the retired librarian, who still volunteers at Seton Catholic School, sprung into action.
“The way I look at it, it’s better than watching TV,” said Bechen. “I had a nephew I visited at Anamosa (State Prison). I could see his growth through reading. He earned his GED. That idle time, what do you do with it? You can watch TV or read.”
Because of the previous bed bug situation and the risk of contraband, the jail has asked the pastorate to order the books from the publishers and have them sent directly to the jail. Bechen is already working on a list of titles that she plans to buy from Scholastic and Amazon.
The pastorate is also planning to write letters to those in the area homebound because of illness.
“If we came make someone’s life a little easier ourselves, it comes back to us 100 fold,” said Bechen. “The word ‘imprisoned’ doesn’t have to mean in jail. I would encourage other social justice groups in the area to tackle some of this. We found in our pastorate, people like to give. They like to know what they’re giving to.”
The Jail and Prison Ministry is always looking for volunteers to visit prisons, serve as mentors or participate in circles of support and accountability.
“(A good volunteer) primarily has to have the ability to listen, and to be themselves; to be positive role models,” said Deacon Hickson.
The deacon also encouraged parishes and individuals to donate to two funds that that would fulfill the “visit the imprisoned” mandate. One is a high school equivalency program at Luster Heights Correctional Facility, and the other is a ministry fund for expenses at the Anamosa State Penitentiary chapel. For more information on donating, please contact Catholic Charities Jail and Prison Ministry through https://www.catholic
charitiesdubuque.org or by phone at 563-588-0558.
(Photos by Dan Russo/The Witness)