By Scott Alessi - OSV Newsweekly, 4/22/2012
Inside the walls of Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institutions, Martha Paone sees herself as a beacon of hope and a calming presence to those who are imprisoned.
As a full-time chaplain, Paone is entrusted with tending to the spiritual needs of inmates at the state’s maximum security prison and the intake service center, which houses prisoners awaiting trial. Though she is a Catholic, Paone serves inmates of all faith backgrounds; scheduling worship services, coordinating volunteer-led activities such as Bible studies and offering pastoral care.
“We are here to plant seeds, to provide support,” Paone told Our Sunday Visitor.
“We provide them a place where they can share with someone who is nonjudgmental about the difficulties and problems they are experiencing,” she said. “We offer encouragement, reminding them of God’s love and understanding.”
Paone is among the more than 1,700 chaplains who serve the 1.6 million inhabitants of federal and state prisons in the United States. In addition, numerous full-time, part-time and volunteer chaplains around the country minister to the needs of prisoners in local and county jails. According to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, these chaplains play a central role in both the faith lives and the rehabilitation of prisoners.
Released in March, the Pew Forum’s “Religion in Prisons” survey compiled the insight of state prison chaplains nationwide, finding that “America’s state penitentiaries are a bustle of religious activity.” But that doesn’t mean the individuals who find themselves behind bars are among the most religious Americans — at least not at first.
“They tend not to be regular churchgoers,” said Tom Skemp, full-time chaplain at the La Crosse, Wis., county jail. “But while they are here they are exposed, possibly for the first time in many years, to spirituality and organized religion.”
Skemp, who also serves as vice president of the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association, ensures that inmates have access to worship services, including monthly Catholic Masses celebrated by a rotating schedule of visiting priests. He also provides a willing ear to listen to the concerns of inmates and helps to guide them on their spiritual journey.
“It is not an overnight transformation,” he told OSV. “But they are in pretty rough shape when they come in here, and this is not a pleasant place to be. So I can be a connection for them to the spiritual life.”
The Pew survey also finds that inmates themselves are often the ones who bring about the faith conversions of others, with 73 percent of chaplains saying that proselytizing is common in prison. Skemp said that simply attending worship services can be a powerful witness of faith that can influence other prisoners.
“There’s a lot of posturing (in prison), and both the men and women are afraid to let any kind of weakness show because they think it could make them vulnerable,” he said. “So any time we can get someone to honestly come forward and worship, and the other men and women see it, only good can come of it.”
While the Pew survey finds that conversions from one faith to another are fairly common in state prisons, Dominican Sister Susan Van Baalen told OSV that inmates are more likely to drift away from Catholicism simply because there are so few Catholic chaplains. In the Federal Bureau of Prisons, she said, there are only 20 Catholic chaplains but more than 50,000 Catholic prisoners.
Sister Susan, a veteran of more than three decades of prison ministry who now serves as executive director of the nonprofit Prison Outreach Ministry in Washington, D.C., told OSV that inmates often have a burning desire for prison ministry and are interested in finding any faith that reaches out to them, regardless of the denomination.
“Most of them haven’t had a good, strong religious upbringing, so they don’t know exactly what they are looking for,” said Sister Susan. “But they are searching.”
Most often, she said, inmates will gravitate toward other Christian faiths that offer multiple activities, such as frequent Bible studies. The Pew survey indicates that Protestant faiths experience the largest growth in prison due to religious conversion, and they are also most likely to have an overabundance of volunteers.
According to Sister Susan, the best way to reverse this trend is to increase the Catholic presence in prison ministry. To do so, she said, more dioceses must establish full-time offices of prison ministry to recruit and train lay volunteers to serve as chaplains.
“We have to understand there is simply a shortage of Catholic chaplains to provide an adequate ministry inside the prisons, and the Church needs to redefine chaplaincy as a function for trained lay ministers,” she said.
Deacon José Treviño agrees that there is a need for more Catholic ministers, particularly those who can speak both English and Spanish. Deacon Treviño serves as a chaplain to multiple facilities, including county jails, state prisons and a federal prison within the Diocese of Dallas, Texas, leading Bible studies for inmates and, without priests to celebrate Mass, offering a Communion service.
In discussing the Scriptures, Deacon Treviño said he focuses on the New Testament, gearing the conversation toward the themes of hope, healing and forgiveness. He understands that such activities may not be enough to completely turn around the lives of those who have committed serious crimes, but he believes it points them in the right direction.
“We know we’re not producing angels,” Deacon Treviño told OSV. “But we are producing people that are on a journey toward a higher being.”
In some cases, he said, former prisoners will send him letters saying that ministry during their prison stay has influenced their behavior and their treatment of others. On the whole, like the majority of chaplains surveyed by the Pew Forum, Deacon Treviño believes that such services do help inmates make better decisions and they reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
“We don’t always know when we make that difference,” he said. “You say a few words and two or three people may really take it to heart and others may not. We don’t know how many we reach, but we hope and pray that they all get something out of it.”
Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.
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