An Interview with Father William Pickard, Prison Chaplain – Part 3

July 10, 2012

This is the third interview with Father William Pickard, Prison Chaplain in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania. For the previous interview, click hereThis interview was conducted on July 10, 2012

CMN:
Father Bill, in mid-June you, along with Pax Christi Northeast Pennsylvania (NEPA) and others, held the 31st Annual National Convocation of Jail and Prison Ministry in Scranton. This annual gathering must increase a sense of solidarity among all involved in the work.

Father Bill:
Yes, and this year we focused on implementing community justice. We’re concerned about the quality of life for everyone: the victims, offenders, and the community-at-large. It’s always a time to get together with friends in the work and share about successes and challenges.

CMN:
Tell us about the successes.

Father Bill:
One of the things that a prison minister learns right away is that most of the inmates are there for drug- or alcohol-related misdemeanors. The addictions have led to mental health problems that often get exaggerated in the prison setting, especially if an inmate has acted out and is placed in solitary confinement. Well, through the Convocation, we highlighted a very positive approach that our county has taken to address this mental health issue in prisons. A mental health court was established about six years ago in Lackawanna County. Judge Robert Mazzoni, who cofounded the court, gave a breakout session at the Convocation.

CMN:
How does the court work?

Father Bill:
An offender who shows signs of mental illness is brought before the judge in the mental health court. His defense is not by a lawyer but by a therapist or counselor who tries to show that the cause of the crime was through mental illness. So, instead of prison time, they can get treatment and counseling. They must appear before the judge weekly who assesses improvement. Prisoners can actually be released and sometimes, with everyone’s cooperation, their crimes can be erased. The mental health court judges say that their work is satisfying and rewarding because they are dealing with the root causes of criminal activity.

CMN:
This is really a type of restorative justice. How could a prison minister become involved in this work?

Father Bill:
Right. It all goes back to when a person first starts in the ministry. In my own history, one of the priests was transferred out and I took his place. Right away, I felt welcome by the inmates. At times, I have felt a bit nervous but never afraid. I found out that prisoners are hungry for faith, whether they have a religion or not. They would attend my weekly Mass, but I would also hold prayer or discussion groups, and sometimes I would bring other people along with me to share their gifts. Over time, you get to know the inmates through all these means. The mental health court considers letters of reference in behalf of the prisoners, and prison ministers are in an ideal position to write them.

CMN:
You mentioned bringing other people along. How would you describe prison ministry to them?

Father Bill:
Folks who are involved for a long time in prison ministry find it an empowering experience, exciting and right out of the Gospel. Jesus was a prisoner as were the Apostles. It is a very faith-centered work. The inmates have a need for faith; many of them have not had that in their lives. They thirst for it. Some feel embarrassed and unworthy, even though many of their crimes were nonviolent. They feel they have made a mistake and let their families and friends down. A volunteer with unconditional positive regard gives back dignity. There is a transformation as times goes on. We would have a Christmas party, and I would bring a musician along; we would form a little parish. Participants would recall to me these happy times even years later.

CMN:
Share some more about how an individual might become involved.

Father Bill:
A prisoner’s faith life has been put on hold, actually their whole life: sometimes they don’t hear from a lawyer for three or four months. They don’t know what is going to happen to them. The only thing that gets them through is prayer; it is the only thing that holds people together. Many inmates are on a spiritual journey. Knowing this, if you feel you have a call to the ministry, pray over it, experiment with it. It’s important also to have a concept of going as a team, as some priests do, out of a parish.

CMN:
The work itself is growing. It fits so well with restorative justice and how the community is becoming involved.

Father Bill:
Yes. And, it all starts in local jails – to minister to change the lives of youth and first offenders. The good effect of breaking down the tension through positive relationships with inmates is creating a movement of community – you can feel the intensity of it all.

CMN:
What action suggestions do you have for our readers?

Father Bill:
This year, the Convocation participants took a small step: we signed petitions for the passage of U.S. Senate Bill S.306, The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011. This bill will create a blue-ribbon commission to undertake an 18-month review of the U.S. criminal justice system. The goal will be to identify effective policies and propose specific reforms to address the most pressing issues. Our readers can write or call their senators in support of S.306. The bill is sponsored by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA); it is stuck in Senate Committee and needs three more votes. Another suggestion I have is to read and discuss the book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (New Press, New York, 2010).