“See Who We Are”: Encounter in Prison

As the staff at a national organization, we at Catholic Mobilizing Network have the great privilege of being in relationship with countless Catholics all over the U.S. who are transforming our criminal justice system from punitive to restorative. Actions like holding prayer vigils, publishing op-eds, conducting parish-based education, and opposing executions are making a difference.

In this work, we witness the fruits of this labor ⁠— death penalty laws being repealed, transformative encounters taking place, and eyes being opened to the brokenness of this culture of retribution which is espoused by our criminal legal system.

It is less often, however, that we have the opportunity to witness firsthand inside of prison walls.

Earlier this month, CMN staff took part in a delegation to St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake, Virginia. We were joined in this visit by representatives from Catholic Charities USA and its local affiliates in Virginia and Washington, DC, in addition to staff from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the emerging Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, and the Diocese of Richmond to experience the work of the Prison Fellowship Academy.

Prison Fellowship is the largest Christian nonprofit serving the prison population and a leader in criminal justice reform. Its in-prison programs provide educational opportunities that help develop spiritual, practical, and interpersonal skills for men and women serving time.

The beginning of our day together opened with an original song composed and performed by a Prison Fellowship student on the keyboard accompanied by another student playing the saxophone. The message of the song, resilience in the face of adversity, felt acutely appropriate when considering how much collective hardship had already been overcome by the people in the room.

We were welcomed to St. Brides with warm smiles and enthusiastic handshakes from about 30 men who gather six times per week to do the rigorous work of preparing for release. Together, they endeavor upon intense coursework on topics of parenting, financial literacy, employment readiness, interpersonal skills, and more. The theme of this week’s course, victim impact, was especially fitting considering CMN’s focus on restorative justice.

In this unit, men in the program are asked to grapple with how their actions/crimes caused pain to others, both directly and indirectly. We gathered in peacemaking circles to share experiences of victimization in our own lives and it became clear that there is more that connects us than divides. Unquestionably evident were the ways that so many times, harmful actions are carried out as a result of pain and suffering gone unhealed.

Our team was particularly struck by one person’s story; we’ll call him Daniel. Daniel killed another man at the age of 18. After more than 20 years in prison, Daniel is preparing for his release which is less than two years away. He hopes to open an art studio, after uncovering his creative talent through a Prison Fellowship art program.

Daniel was spared a death sentence decades ago because his victim’s family asked the state to spare his life. It was powerful to witness Daniel’s leadership in the program and his gift for creating art. It wasn’t lost on us how this person, full of life and hope, could have been executed were it not for the mercy this family showed him.

Clearly, this mercy isn’t something Daniel takes for granted.

As we walked outside the cement walls chain link fence, into the expansive and sun-drenched landscape of rural Virginia, the words of the men we met played like a refrain on the dusty car ride home.

“Judge our heart not what we did in the past. We deserve a second chance. We aren’t castaways. We all make mistakes.”

“Give us the opportunity; get to know us. We aren’t bad. See who we are. Give us the opportunity to prove to you who we are.”

“We are no different than you. We are waiting for our redemption. We will be your neighbors some day.”

“The message is a message of love. Genuine, unconditional love.”

“Most people in this prison are here for a crime they committed once, but they are punished for it again and again.”

With this, it was heartening to know how many of us were hearing these messages together, the variety of ministry and advocacy work represented, social services, in-prison accompaniment, re-entry services.

We were reaffirmed in our convictions to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice and reminded of the role Catholics play in the larger picture of transforming the criminal justice system and the lives of those impacted by it.