I Was in Prison; You Visited me

by Roxanne King

Among the facts listed in a 2015 Newsweek article on inmate populations of the United States were these: over 2.2 million people are incarcerated in U.S. jails or prisons, more than 2.7 million children in this country have a parent behind bars, and about half of the people incarcerated in federal prisons are there for non-violent drug offenses.

Capuchin Franciscan friars minister to those in juvenile detention centers, county jails, state prisons, immigration detention centers and federal correction institutions in the metro-Denver area. The friars celebrate Mass, hear confessions, counsel and catechize.

People have asked Father Sojan Parappilly, O.F.M. Cap., who has been involved in prison ministry for four years, whether he fears carrying it out. "I tell them no, I'm happy to have this ministry," he said. "Usually, people go to the church to receive the sacraments, but in prison ministry, we go to them. You really feel like you are serving them. And they really need that service. God gives them a chance to come back. No matter how far away you go [from God], you can always come back, you can always change. It's giving them that chance. We want to be there for them."

Sensational media portrayals of the incarcerated-in mainstream news and in the entertainment industry-contribute to negative stereotypes of inmates. (The same is true of corrections staffers.) "We all make mistakes," Father Sojan said. "These are normal people, they are good people. They are not born criminals. They are often a product of their circumstances-abuse, neglect, poverty, abandonment, mental illness-things like that."

Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the Capuchin Franciscans strive to take the light and hope of the Gospel and the mercy of God to the forgotten and marginalized. "St. Francis went out to people who were unseen, ignored or put off to the side in the culture he lived in," said Father Joseph Elder, O.F.M. Cap., who has ministered to the incarcerated seven years. "He saw Christ in them and that in serving them he was serving the suffering Christ. In that tradition we also go to those pushed aside by society-the homeless with our food truck, or to people in prison. One of the things Jesus says is that at the final judgment we are going to be judged by how we loved. 'I was sick and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me' (Mt 25:36). We are to live out that gospel concretely and simply."

Deacon Steve Vallero, coordinator of Catholic Jail and Prison Ministry for the Denver Archdiocese, said the friars' labors are vital to the program. "We absolutely could not do without the friar priests," he said. "We need to have priests available for confession, to celebrate Mass and for other liturgical activities. "[The Capuchin friars] have walked with me for almost 20 years in the ministry; and it is in walking with them as brothers in Christ that we are able to bring the hope of Jesus Christ into a very dark place."

Like Father Sojan, Father Joseph said that despite film and TV images of violent, angry inmates, his experience with the incarcerated has been of meeting people much like himself. "They made a mistake, maybe the same as you, but they got caught," he said. "Often they are very good people. Ultimately, they are our brothers and sisters, too."

While over past decades the war on drugs led to massive increases in those imprisoned on drug-related offenses, the Washington Post reported that now, due to a hardline approach adopted by the government and prosecutors on immigration offenses, undocumented immigrants are among the fastest growing segments of the prison population. Since 2005, rather than deporting immigration offenders, those who enter or re-enter the country illegally are likely to be charged.

Whether imprisoned and perhaps eventually deported, or simply deported, the outcome can be devastating. "For some inmates, it's a traumatic experience being in prison. It means they're separated from family; and likely that separation will be pro-longed as they'll be sent back home," said Father Joseph, who ministers at an immigration detention center. "People can be very emotional. I can empathize with them-if I had a wife and children, I'd be broken up inside."

Both priests, who are among a handful of friars, several diocesan priests and a cadre of 50 lay volunteers engaged in local prison ministry, said the experience has increased their compassion for the incarcerated. "We see the inherent goodness in them," said Father Sojan, who ministers to adults and juveniles at state and county facilities. Father Sojan noted that those in prison don't have to attend the Mass or confessions the friars offer. "They come because they want to listen. That's striking," he said. "You see them crying sometimes, in response to the word of God at Mass. And powerful confessions: especially among those who may be there for 10, 15, 20 years-or life. When they open up, it's a sign they want to change. They are very sincere; they feel they have a chance to come back. I am happy I am there to give that sacrament."

Father Joseph concurred. "Every once in a while I'll see someone outside of prison who I met while ministering inside a prison," he said. "I was at Annunciation Parish and one young man in his early 30s told me in Spanish that I had celebrated Mass at GEO ICE [detention center] when he was there. He said, 'You don't know how much that meant to the guys there: to have you come in and celebrate Mass and give us that hope.'"

Witnessing conversion and renewed hope and joy makes prison ministry rewarding, the friars said. "We're always looking for lay volunteers," Father Joseph said. "You don't need a degree, just a heart for the poor and suffering."

"In the ministry of Jesus in the gospels, there are all sorts of people," added Father Sojan. "Compassion and love changed them. The same for these inmates. That's what God's love can do."