In New Jersey, as in every other state, mass incarceration prevails, especially for those who are poor and destitute, those who can’t pay the bail. The vicious cycle continues within and outside the barbed wired walls. Our penal institutions are overcrowded and the conditions are less than humane. In some of our county facilities, men and women sleep on mats on the floor. Often, we who call ourselves Christians fail to equate these conditions with poverty. Instead, there is an attitude that “this is what they deserve.”
Recently, Pope Francis made the comment, “God doesn’t tire of forgiving and all of us make mistakes in life.” Most often, the men and women in our penal institutions came from conditions of dire poverty and, on release, will return to the same. What does our country, our state, have in place today for the returning citizens to society? Often, they come to the doors of Catholic Charities having lost their family, as well as being homeless, jobless and without money. Yet, we call our country the land of liberty and freedom.
In the USA, there are 2.3 million persons in our correctional institutions, more than any other country in the world. Within the six counties of our diocese, there are approximately 15,000 inmates. Approximately 75 percent of these inmates are either mentally ill or drug addicted. Would it not serve our country better to have facilities to treat the illness, rather than lock these human beings behind bars? The pope — as well as the president, most presidential candidates and the majority of Congress — says we need prison reform. Will Pope Francis’ presence and words to the inmates at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility or to the men and women in Congress, especially Catholic legislators, help bring about real prison reform?
I never imagined myself serving this population of men and women. For 43 years, my ministry was in the field of education in various capacities. The mission was to provide a total education for our young people — spiritual, emotional, mental, physical — all based on Gospel living. For the next 12 years, my ministry was leadership within my own congregation, Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y. Our mission is to live the Gospel and to be at home with all people.
Three years ago I was heading toward retirement, so I began discernment for my next ministry. I was aware that whatever that would be, my commitment to the mission of Gospel living would be integral. In June 2013, Kevin Hickey, executive director of Catholic Charities, invited me to consider prison ministry in the Diocese of Camden. I can so vividly recall my first internal reaction. It was one of fear, questioning, doubt.
Then I realized, it was not Mr. Hickey requesting me to consider this ministry, but the Holy Spirit encouraging me to respond to the mission of Catholic Charities to bring the Gospel to all persons with no differentiation. I had seen various aspects of poverty —material, spiritual, emotional, mental — as an educator and in my leadership role, so why not transfer that experience to the incarcerated within the nine correctional facilities in South Jersey? Here was another opportunity for mission: bringing the Good News to the most neglected and the least in our society.
I would be less than honest to say that in the first few months I was on a very high learning curve; however, my whole being has been captured by this ministry. I am convinced that every one of us who crosses the threshold of any one of the institutions receives more than he or she gives. As a Franciscan, I think of the two Francises in my life: St. Francis, who was a prisoner himself and Pope Francis who chose to go to a prison on Holy Thursday to be a servant to the inmates and wash their feet, as he is sure Jesus would do.
There are several men and women who volunteer in the prisons and jails in the diocese, but many more are needed. An invitation is extended to all readers and beyond to consider volunteering just one hour per week to bring your faith, hope and love to our brothers and sisters in one of the facilities in the Diocese of Camden. Just remember, no one retires from the mission of bringing the Good News to all God’s children.
Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, O.S.F. is Prison Ministry coordinator, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden.