By Barb Arland-Fye
Eleven years ago one of my nephews was killed in what was described as a police drug sting. He’d been in trouble with the law before, and had served time in prison. While incarcerated, Jamie wrote a letter to my husband and me. I had mixed feelings of unease and compassion as I read the letter. Did I think the sender or his return address would somehow taint my family?
My nephew was a thoughtful, articulate letter writer. I considered writing back, but didn’t. When he died a few years later, I felt a deep sense of regret. If I had written back, would it have made a difference? If a role model with compassion and patience had been available to Jamie, would he have turned his life around after prison?
These thoughts resurfaced a few weeks ago when I attended a class with deacon candidates and their spouses on prison ministry. The speakers, Deacons Tom Lang and Bill Hickson of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, shared the history of prison ministry there and talked about two effective after-care programs: Mentoring in Northeast Iowa and Circles of Support and Accountability.
“After-care is really helping those who come back to our communities, our churches,” said Deacon Lang, diaconate director for the Dubuque Archdiocese. Society doesn’t welcome offenders back with open arms. “We really have a lot of prejudices about men and women who come from prison,” he noted.
He acknowledged that some individuals need to be locked up for the safety of themselves and society. But the vast majority of offenders got into trouble because of addictions and aren’t necessarily violent. They could benefit from mentoring and circles of support and accountability.
Mentoring involves a one-on-one relationship in which the mentor shares knowledge and experience with the mentee to help that individual define and reach goals. A mentor is not a counselor, therapist, police officer, bank or loan officer or enabler, Deacon Lang pointed out. Most of the relationships offenders have aren’t good relationships. “We try to help them stay clear of those.”
Each circle of support and accountability engages five or six volunteers from the community. This includes the mentor and offender, in an effort to move the offender toward accountability, healing and responsible living.
“We try to get both men and women volunteers,” Deacon Lang said, because offenders need to develop positive relationships with both genders. All volunteers receive training before undertaking this responsibility.
“I fell in love with the ministry quickly. These are sons and daughters of God,” Deacon Lang said. “I’ve made mistakes in my life, maybe not as drastic as theirs, but I’m not perfect. If you want to see the Holy Spirit at work, get involved in prison ministry,” he added.
The Davenport Diocese’s Catholic Charities hopes to coordinate prison and jail ministry efforts in our diocese and to expand it to include restorative justice, said Kent Ferris, the diocese’s director of Social Action and Catholic Charities. He sees restorative justice as assisting offenders in moving toward making meaningful contributions for themselves, families and society. “The intention is never to do for, but to be with and support individuals wanting to turn their lives around,” he said.
“The idea of restorative justice is fairly old. Crime is a violation of relationships as well as a violation of the law. So the idea is to restore broken relationships,” said Deacon Hickson, coordinator for jail and prison ministry of Catholic Charities in the Dubuque Archdiocese.
“Starting slowly and building a strong foundation have been important to this ministry,” he advised. God provides volunteers – the people we need at the time we needed them.” A good source of volunteers is parishes, particularly from their social justice ministries, he noted.
Deacon Bob McCoy of the Diocese of Davenport, a trained mentor, said he knows of several offenders returning to this diocese who seek a mentor. “These are folks getting out in the near future. Obviously we have a great need.”
The sad story of my nephew has impacted me to consider this ministry in my future.