When Pope John XXIII visited a jail in Rome early in his papacy, according to an oft-told story, he told the inmates: “You can’t come to see me, so I’m coming to see you.”
For Father Ralph Ferro, chaplain for the Nassau County Correctional Center, these words strike close to the heart of what prison ministry is about. Prisoners “feel alone and forgotten. We have to go to them.”
“All of our bishops — Bishop McGann, Bishop McHugh, and Bishop Murphy and our auxiliary bishops — have said the same thing, and more importantly, have done the same thing,” visiting the local correctional facilities, said Franciscan Brother Jack Moylan, diocesan director of prison ministry.
The bishops join a committed group of priests, deacons, religious and laity — some as volunteers — who minister “to the Church inside the walls,” Brother Jack said. “The men and women in the jails are as much a part of our Church, the body of Christ, as anyone else.
“Prison ministry springs from the Gospels,” Brother Jack said, notably Matthew 25, when Jesus says He’ll welcome into heaven those who fed him when He was hungry, and visited Him when He was sick or in prison. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for Me.”
“Most people don’t know what it’s like to be incarcerated,” said Deacon Chris Vigliotta, a chaplain for the Suffolk County Correctional Facility. “You are thrown into a situation where you are cut off from your life. Most of the time, you feel you can’t trust anyone.”
Many of those in jail are already suffering from poverty, lack of education, drug or alcohol addiction, and other afflictions, Father Ferro noted.
“This is a ministry of presence,” helping inmates realize that they are not alone, explained Holy Family of Nazareth Sister Michelle Bremer, also a chaplain for the Suffolk County Correctional Facility. “These are people who have made mistakes but they can learn to recognize their mistakes and also try to recover a sense of their own dignity.”
“It is a ministry of accompaniment,” added Brother Jack. Often inmates in the county jails are awaiting trial for more serious offenses, he explained. Those sentenced for less serious offenses may serve their sentences in Nassau or Suffolk, but others serve their time in state or federal facilities far away.
“We keep in touch with them as best we can,” Brother Jack said, writing letters and being available to them once they are released and return to Long Island.
The prison ministry’s staff works with inmates at the Nassau County Correctional Center in East Meadow, the juvenile detention center in Westbury, and the Suffolk County correctional facilities in Riverhead and Yaphank.
Catholic prison ministry is not limited to diocesan efforts. Beginning a New Life, a not-for-profit organization in Suffolk that Brother Jack and others in prison ministry started, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Nassau — principally through Dismas House, a transitional residence for men leaving incarceration — support former inmates as they adjust to life on the outside.
To offer inmates the sacraments, prison ministry plans 13 weekly services in conjunction with the respective facilities, Brother Jack said. Priests are recruited to offer Mass on a rotating basis. Bishop Emil Wcela, retired vicar for the diocese’s eastern vicariate, offers Mass at the Riverhead facility.
“I joke that I have a captive audience but I find it a worthwhile experience,” Bishop Wcela said. “Of course, you know that some of the inmates may have different reasons for coming but you try to reach them. You can tell a lot of them are receptive.”
“Just last year, we had to add another Mass in Suffolk because one of the Masses was getting too crowded,” Deacon Vigliotta said.
Wally Rodier of St. Bernard’s Church in Levittown, who assists each week at Masses at the Nassau jail, said that he was drawn to volunteer when Brother Jack spoke at his parish. At first he felt some anxiety. “I didn’t know what it would be like, but I found that the inmates are people like ourselves.”
He recalled at one recent Mass after a period of bad weather, he urged an inmate to enjoy the good weather that day. “The prisoner told me that he wouldn’t be able to go outside” for their regular exercise because he used his privileges to attend Mass.
“A lot of them never had any experience of the Church,” Father Ferro said. So prison ministry staff and volunteers work with them to prepare them for their sacraments, including baptism, first Communion, and confirmation.
In addition to providing an opportunity for the sacraments, prison ministry also assists with practicalities.
In Nassau, Dismas House, part of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, sends volunteer teams for five weekly sessions into the Nassau jail to help inmates learn about job openings, fill out an application, practice interview strategies, and write a resume.
In Suffolk, the Philemon Fellowship, a Bible study and support group at the jail, connects inmates with volunteer mentors, Deacon Vigliotta said.
The group’s name comes from St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, Deacon Vigliotta said. Paul wrote to Philemon from prison about Onesimus, a fellow inmate and Philemon’s runaway slave. After bringing Onesimus to faith in Christ, Paul urged Philemon to accept Onesimus, not as a slave, but “a brother, beloved.”
The Philemon Fellowship grew into a support program, Beginning a New Life, that continues after inmates are released from jail, Deacon Vigliotta said. There are groups for men and for women.
Sue Kelly, a mentor with the women’s group, notes that group members are dealing with many different issues, such as substance abuse. Through the group and the one-to-one relationships with mentors, “we try to help build a sense of self-esteem.”
“We can’t change their past choices or the consequences of their choices,” Sister Michelle said of the inmates they serve, “but we can try to give them a sense of hope, that jail is not all that there is and that change is possible for today and tomorrow.”
Prison ministers also help inmates seek out the help they need, whether it is English-as-a-second-language classes or assistance in approaching the medical staff.
The work can be difficult at times, prison ministers acknowledge, but “from time to time,” Sister Michelle said, “someone will come up to you on the outside and say, ‘Do you remember me?’ You’re humbled that they remember you and you’re happy that you were able to help, sometimes in ways you didn’t know, and that they felt comfortable enough to have you remember them.”
Former inmates find help, hope
“Imagine yourself, getting arrested and sent to jail during the summer, being dressed for summer weather, and getting released in winter,” said Deacon Chris Vigliotta. He is a Catholic chaplain at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead and secretary-treasurer of Beginning a New Life, a program that helps former inmates rebuild their lives and avoid the trap of recidivism.
“If you have been in for a long time, a lot of things have changed that you have to face,” said Bob Williams, who chairs the New Life advisory board. “So much has happened with computers and technology.”
“So much depends on what you left behind when you went in,” said Pat Shea, president of New Life and a former public school teacher and lacrosse coach for St. Anthony High School in South Huntington.
“Many of them didn’t have steady jobs when they were sentenced and if they did, the job is probably not there anymore,” he said. Problems with lack of education, substance abuse, and family issues are waiting for them when they walk out of jail.
“They need immediate help,” Shea noted, “otherwise the lack of a job, house, and obligations facing them can be devastating.” At the same time, “as a former teacher and coach, I realize how important it is to see the potential in someone and encourage that potential — even if the former inmate can’t see that potential right away.”
The Church, through efforts like New Life in Suffolk and Dismas House, a transitional residence in Nassau County for men leaving incarceration, tries to help former inmates to become integrated back into society.
Dismas House was founded by the St. Vincent de Paul Society through the efforts of Jack Eschmann, a retired police officer and Vincentian veteran. Dismas offers “a life restoration program for men who come here and recognize the necessity for change,” said Zack Singleton, house manager.
“We take our name from Dismas, ‘the Good Thief’ who was crucified next to Jesus,” Singleton said. Residents have a safe, secure place to stay but are required to work or actively seek work during the day and attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings most nights.
“Since 1988 we have taken in more than 800 men,” with about 85 percent of them able to maintain a sober, drug-free and productive life, explained Singleton, formerly an alcoholism and substance abuse counselor at the Nassau jail.
“We are usually filled to capacity,” accommodating 10 men, Singleton said. Supported by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Dismas depends on volunteers and on donations and fundraisers, Singleton said.
“When I was really ready to get my life together, I came here,” said one former resident, Matt, 45, who spent many years in and out of jail. “I got here about a year ago and I have been clean ever since.” He has been working at a warehouse and is rebuilding his relationships with his family. “For years, they didn’t want anything to do with me.”
Coming to Dismas is “one of the best decisions that I ever made,” said Rob, 55, who is now working in a machine shop. “This house prepares you for life on the outside and getting to know regular people. You have strict standards to live by. I’m keeping to them and saving money. I was ashamed of my life but now I can hold my head up.”
New Life currently serves about 200 former inmates. New Life also has a job program to help former inmates find work and has a mentor program, said Robert Ross, director of the New Life Center.
“Many have no support whatsoever when they get out of jail,” said Tom Beirne, a program coordinator for New Life. “We start before they are released, helping them develop a plan for when they get out, which increases their chance of success.”
“We started officially in January of 2008 and earlier this year we launched a program for women,” said Ross.
There is also a semi-monthly support group that meets at a Lutheran church in Patchogue. The group includes mentors and other supporters, those who are recently released from incarceration, and former inmates who have begun to adjust to life on the outside.
“I’ve been out three to four years,” said Scott Doherty of Lake Ronkonkoma, who started his own painting business about a year after his release from jail.
Though he had been in and out of jail for years, Doherty said that during his last term, he started attending Catholic Bible study, rediscovered his faith and began attending 12-step meetings for recovery from alcoholism.
“I realized things could change,” Doherty said, and he now tries to encourage others. “I want to give back.
“I tell them that they can make it,” Doherty said. “They just have to keep at it.”
Programs like Dismas and New Life have won praise from public officials who spent their careers working with the criminal justice system.
“I think Dismas House is great,” said former Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon.
“Efforts like that can offer a moral and spiritual dimension that most government programs can’t. And you need that spiritual dimension.”