By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
FORT MADISON — Three years after Bishop Martin Amos celebrated Mass at the Iowa State Penitentiary, he returned as a guest of an offender receiving his high school equivalency diploma.
Enrique Aboltes Garcia, 40, who is Catholic, has been corresponding with Bishop Amos since meeting him at that pre-Christmas Mass in December 2013. Garcia’s letters reflect a strong faith, the bishop said. “It seems to me that it’s not just an intellectual faith, but a lived faith for him.”
In October, Bishop Amos received a letter from Garcia inviting him to attend his high school graduation. The bishop made room on his calendar for the March 9 ceremony at Iowa’s only maximum security facility. Garcia is serving a life sentence, having been convicted on a murder charge. He entered the prison on Dec. 24, 1998.
Altogether, 16 offenders received high school equivalency diplomas; three of them were absent from the ceremony held in the prison’s program building. The graduates wore red caps and gowns, the school colors of Southeastern Community College, whose president awarded the diplomas. A recording of “Pomp and Circumstance” played as graduates entered the room. Nearly 90 guests were in attendance for the largest graduating class ever, said Mike Schierbrock, associate warden of treatment.
Bishop Amos was inspired by the stories of Garcia and his fellow graduates. “Each of them got up and gave a prepared talk about what it meant for them to finally graduate from high school and how much work it took for them to get to that point,” the bishop said. “There was one teacher that everyone mentioned (Beth Deacon). She has a passion for math.”
Math is a subject that offenders at the Fort Madison prison struggle with most, Schierbrock said. Deacon’s ability and desire to help students understand math is a big reason that this year’s graduating class was the largest, he added. He also commended correction officers Randy Coffman and Dave Maynard, who were recognized for encouraging the graduates in their studies. “It just goes to show that when someone takes the time to let our offenders know they care, it can make a big difference,” Schierbrock said.
Garcia began his studies with limited math skills, but was determined to learn and put in hours of study to build on his comprehension. He became so proficient that he was among two graduates who received recognition for tutoring their fellow offenders. Bishop Amos saw that honor as further proof of Garcia’s commitment to helping others, as evidenced by his work with offenders in hospice.
Also in attendance at the ceremony were two of the Catholic clergymen involved in ministry at the prison, Deacon David Sallen and Father Joseph Phung, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison. Garcia is a part of the Catholic Chapel group at the prison, Deacon Sallen said. “He assists the elderly hospice inmates, the ones needing extra help. … He is very dedicated and interested in helping others. He’s also a leader who has the ability to encourage people to do things to accomplish goals.”
The challenge is encouraging other offenders in the prison to pursue their high school equivalency diploma, Deacon Sallen said. “When I talk with them, I say, ‘It’s a way for you to expand your knowledge base and to know what’s going on in the world; it’s a way of accomplishing a goal that can give you some peace.”
Towards the end of his emotional graduation talk, Garcia switched from English to Spanish to speak directly to his mother in the audience. The two have a close relationship and he speaks with her by phone regularly, the bishop said.
Reflecting on the graduation ceremony, Bishop Amos said he found it moving and emotional. “You see a human side of people who for one reason or another find themselves in a difficult place doing wonderful things.”