Encountering Mercy: Visit the Imprisoned
“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In June the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Visit the Imprisoned.” This month’s profiles will highlight examples of those who experience these corporal works of mercy in their daily lives.
James Pritchett, 47, was looking at going back to prison again, this time for 20 years. He had already spent seven years of his life in the criminal justice system, five of them at one time in his 20s, but he had been “in trouble with the law” from an early age.
As a newborn, Pritchett was already addicted to drugs and alcohol. His parents, grandparents and extended family all struggled with substance abuse. He started driving the family’s cars at around 10 years old. At 13, he was put in foster care.
“I went to the foster home not knowing what I would receive there. These people, when I got there, they showed me another type of love that I never had experienced in my life,” Pritchett said. “I went to school, something I didn’t really do when I was at home because nobody cared whether I went to school or not.”
Because of his spotty school attendance as a child and learning difficulties, Pritchett had never learned to read. He found ways to get around it his whole life, watching while others worked to learn skills, meeting people in person instead of filling out applications.
Despite his criminal record and illiteracy, Pritchett had built a successful life. He opened his own construction and landscaping businesses, at one time with as many as 25 employees. He had six children who were his number one priority. He was active in his community, doing work for local churches and those who needed it.
Most of his neighbors didn’t realize that he struggled with alcoholism, he said.
“My life wasn’t all messed up but I was messed up. Even if I had the good job making the good money, my life was still dysfunctional and I thought that was normal because that’s the way I was brought up. I thought life was drinking and partying. As long as I paid my bills, I thought everything was great,” he said.
One night in 2008 Pritchett was involved in a drunk driving collision with a police officer. Two weeks later, he was in another collision with the same officer. He was facing a 20-year sentence.
“I prayed to God and said, ‘If you get me out of this I’ll change my life. God, can you hear me? I need your help. My kids need me,’” he said.
At sentencing, his whole family and members of his community, including the pastors of the churches he had assisted, were in the courtroom. The judge did something unusual. He overruled the prosecutor’s recommendation of 20 years and reduced the sentence to three.
In prison, Pritchett kept his promise to God; he started to change his life. He met his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and started going to every AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting in the prison. He went to every prison ministry meeting, too, and started to develop his faith.
“They meant a lot to me,” he said of the prison ministry volunteers that he worked with. “These guys came in and taught me about God. They helped me experience hope and they showed me love that I never had or was taught. … I got to meditating and talking to God and asking him to show me what’s my purpose in life.”
For his behavior in prison, Pritchett was released after just one year with two years of parole. He ended up serving just one year of parole. At his release, his girlfriend didn’t let him come back to the house at first; she wasn’t convinced he had changed. It took time, but in 2011 they were married. February will mark eight years of sobriety.
Today, three of his children are in college. He’s working on completing his GED diploma and within the last two years has become fully literate.
“I never in my whole life read a book until the last two years — I’m literally reading books and enjoying what I read. Before I would get frustrated. Now every time I get a chance I’m reading my book,” he said.
He and his family are active in the community. He works with kids who, like him, were born addicted or are living in dysfunctional homes. He works with men, helping them become better fathers and husbands.
“I just thank God that I have a purpose in life today,” he said. “Before I was walking around without a purpose. Today I have a purpose.”
James Pritchett was part of a panel of speakers who shared their experiences at the recent Prison Ministry Gathering for volunteers in prison ministry throughout the Diocese of Camden.
For more information on prison ministry in the Diocese of Camden and how to become a volunteer, contact Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF: 856-342-4106, Sr.MaryLou.Lafferty@camdendiocese.org.
The mercy of visiting the imprisoned
During his weekly Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 10, 2014, Pope Francis discussed, in his signature conversational manner, the church as Mother. As a mother teaches by example, the pope said, so does the church instruct the faithful in the various works of mercy.
“Mother Church teaches us to be close to those who are in prison. ‘But no Father, this is dangerous, those are bad people.’ But each of us is capable…. Listen carefully to this: each of us is capable of doing the same thing that that man or that woman in prison did. All of us have the capacity to sin and to do the same, to make mistakes in life. They are no worse than you and me! Mercy overcomes every wall, every barrier, and leads you to always seek the face of the man, of the person. And it is mercy which changes the heart and the life, which can regenerate a person and allow him or her to integrate into society in a new way.”