Faith in Action: Jail & Prison Ministry

By Lisa Turner, LMFT
Special to The Witness

This is the last in a series of articles connecting the work of Catholic Charities, charity and faith, and the mental health struggles experienced by the populations the agency serves. Each month has focused on a different Catholic Charities program: mental health counseling, immigration legal services and affordable housing. This last article focuses on the work of Catholic Charities’ Jail & Prison Ministry.

As mentioned in previous articles, as the social needs of our country evolved decade by decade, so did the services of Catholic Charities. Supporting and strengthening families is central to Catholic Charities’ mission as the decades of the 1980s and 1990s progressed. This was accomplished through a variety of services including outreach programs created to serve at-risk populations, like Jail & Prison Ministry.

Offenders and ex-offenders can be some of the most vulnerable members of our society.  Individuals released from jail or prison often return to their communities with no employment, home or support system and need to overcome the social and psychological challenges of incarceration. Through a network of volunteer mentors and support groups, Catholic Charities’ Jail & Prison Ministry program supports ex-offenders as they work toward positive re-entry into family and community life.

In Iowa, as of July 2019, 8,423 individuals were incarcerated in Iowa ­prisons, which is 21.49 percent over capacity. Those numbers are expected to rise over the next five to 10 years. According to a recent Des Moines Register article, 57 percent of inmates in Iowa correctional facilities live with a mental health issue. Individuals suffering from a mental illness are more likely to be a danger to themselves than to others; consequently, most who are in jail or prison are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. National studies indicate that depression was the most prevalent mental health condition reported by inmates, followed by mania, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A recidivism rate is the percent of offenders released from prison or work release who return to prison within three years. The recidivism rate for the state of Iowa in FY 2018 was 37.8 percent. The recidivism rate for ex-offenders who work with the Catholic Charities Jail & Prison Ministry program is 28.6%. This means that when given a mentor to work one-to-one with and a circle of support group to work with towards their individualized goals, those clients are 25% less likely to reoffend than the state average.

The Jail & Prison Ministry program at Catholic Charities helps ex-offenders establish positive relationships, experience healthy social activities, and connect with community resources that can aid in finding work, affordable housing and meeting basic needs. Last year, 88 percent of ex-offenders in the program had stable housing, transportation and employment within six months after their release from jail or prison. The Jail & Prison Ministry program is available throughout the Archdiocese, with area coordinators in Ames, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Marshalltown, Mason City, rural northeast Iowa and ­Waterloo.

If you are interested in volunteering for this program, please visit the volunteer page at or call 319-272-2080.