Criminal Justice: Bringing Christ inside the walls of prisons, jails

Father Gabriel Espinosa
Guest Columnist

I had two brief reflection talks this week for prison chaplains who come from different dioceses. I have been offering these talks for about 4 or 5 years now and I am always humbled and surprised that they keep asking me back. There is always a bit of hesitation on my part. Not about accepting the change to be with the chaplains; but the fear of what I can possibly present to these men and women. After all, they are the ones doing the heavy lifting. 
My contribution requires offering them encouragement and support as they continue with their ministry. Prison ministry can wear you down with misunderstandings and a feeling of indifference from others or even a lack of support from your own community. 
I have just recently started to get involved in prison ministry once more. I began this ministry while still a seminarian in Houston. The work seemed to find me and I felt a desire to give it a try. I remember as a seminarian being naïve and thinking that I would be able to cover so much ground with this ministry. I never thought about encountering disruptions at the prison that determined whether or not I would be able to go in; or that everyone in that unit would need support of some kind. It’s a hard world to visit and I was always aware that the men I ministered to in Houston were shielding me from the harsh reality of their daily lives.
I would go into the segregation units wearing the chaplain’s stab proof vest and begin visiting the men one cell at a time. How foolish I was to think that I could visit a three-tiered unit a week; and then do a follow up visit soon thereafter. The truth was that I was able to visit each cell in each unit only once. This was heartbreaking for me because I wanted to visit every man there. There was a helplessness knowing that I wouldn’t get to them all. I listened to their stories and that unit became church to me. There were no altars in these units or anything remotely religious. But God was there. I felt him and he was truly present.
It was in prison that I first began to hear confessions from these men who shared their stories with me. I was always upfront and always told them that I was not a priest but a seminarian and that I would not be able to take their sins away. But they didn’t care because finally someone wanted to hear their stories.
I remember pressing my pinky up against the diamond shaped grate that covered the cell of one of my first visits. He had put his pinky up first and I felt compelled to place mine there too. And it served as an embrace as I said goodbye. At the end of each weekly visit of ministry, I would sit in the chaplain’s office and wait until he wrapped up his own office work so that we could be escorted back by one of the guards. 
Inevitably this chaplain would share with me his frustrations with the prison system and what was going on with him. My job was simply to listen. And then it hit me; this chaplain also needed to be ministered to as well.
I know people do not understand why prison ministry is necessary. They will say why not help the victims and forget the offenders? Well, we know that visiting the imprisoned is a work of mercy that Jesus mentions when speaking about the Judgement of the Nations in the Gospel of Matthew. We cannot forget that the imprisoned also have the right to experience God in their lives.
What a beautiful thought to know that they too can go through RCIA or make their sacraments even in prison. They can attend Kolbe Retreats, which are formatted to follow the ACTS Retreats that have helped many others. They can learn about their faith or learn how to read a Bible.
Lives can and are transformed in every imaginable place, even in prisons. I am so grateful that prison chaplains and ministers continue to carry on the work of being the presence of Jesus Christ in jails and prisons across our state. Christ himself was brought forth in chains and imprisoned if only briefly before being given the death sentence. His Divine Mercy extended not only to those below him at the cross; but also to the criminal who hung at his side. That criminal was given a chance to speak and to acknowledge his wrongdoing. It was his confession that caught the ear of Christ, but it was ultimately his contrition that bought him paradise. 
Let us continue to pray for those dedicated men and women who continue to serve our brothers and sisters in prison. They shine the light of Christ in the darkest of corners and they share the joy of the Risen Lord each and every time they visit the imprisoned.