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 highlight examples of those who experience these corporal works of mercy in their daily lives. Beginning in October, the Diocese of Camden focuses on the theme of “Clothe the Naked.”
Chris Parry, 51, has been involved in prison ministry at her parish, the Church of Saint Andrew the Apostle in Gibbsboro, for at least the last 10 years. Volunteers in the parish’s prison ministry group have come and gone, but Parry, one of the group’s founders, still remembers how it all got started.
“The Legion of Mary at the time was reading a book about reaching out to the poorest of the poor, those in prison, and it just touched a few of us. We decided that we would look into the possibility of going to Camden County jail,” said Parry, who is the coordinator of Compassionate Outreach at Saint Andrew’s.
Today the group has seven active members that go into the Camden County Correctional Facility on a rotating schedule. Every Thursday at least two of the members, sometimes more, lead a religious reflection group for women at the jail.
“They know that they can count on us every Thursday. It’s showing that you care about them consistently. We’re making the time for them,” Parry said. “That’s what it’s all about: expressing to the ladies that we care about them and we want them to do well.”
The group’s meetings last about two and a half hours and incorporate prayer, reflection, sharing and a faith-based lesson based on a spiritual book or reading. Each member of the group has a role, from preparing lessons to compiling donations for the women of stamped envelopes, writing paper and activities.
The ministry extends beyond release when, Parry says, the group helps connect the women to the parish’s other social ministries, such as food assistance, furniture donations, holiday gift baskets and clothing.
For Parry, ministering to the incarcerated women has been humbling.
“If it wasn’t for God’s grace many of us could be sitting right where they’re sitting, in their shoes,” Parry said.
“When you go outside the box, you surprise yourself, too. You grow more comfortable with that,” she said. “You become the best version of yourself, the best person that you can be, by just stepping outside of that box.”
While the U.S. contains 5 percent of the world’s population, it accounts for almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world, at 716 prisoners per 100,000 people, a rate much higher than that of most other developed countries.
Recidivism, or the rate at which formerly incarcerated individuals return to prison, is also high. A Pew study from 2011 found that more than four in 10 prisoners in the U.S. are re-incarcerated within three years of their release from prison.
While the Pew study found that New Jersey has been making progress in reducing its recidivism rate, a 2010 report by the state found that 53 percent of a sample of released prisoners had been rearrested and 32 percent reconvicted within a three-year time period. In New Jersey, the cost of incarcerating an individual is more than $46,000 a year.
Several studies suggest that faith-based programs in prisons can help reduce recidivism rates. Other programs, such as drug and alcohol treatment, job training and education programs also help reduce the chances that an individual will return to prison.
For Gail DeVine, all of these factors played a part in helping her pull her life together after multiple prison sentences.
DeVine has been incarcerated three times, totaling more than four and a half years. She was imprisoned for the first time in 2006, a six-month sentence for drug possession, but when she violated her probation in 2007 she was sent back to prison for three years.
DeVine said she was in an abusive marriage and active in her addiction at the time of her arrests. When she was released in 2010, she ended the relationship and started to get her life back on track. But in 2013, she went on vacation and while she was away, friends started selling drugs out of her house, according to DeVine. She was arrested again and sentenced to 365 days in prison.
“I guess that’s what God thought it took in order for me to get into the place where I needed to be for him to work through me,” DeVine said of her third conviction.
During her time in the Camden County Correctional Facility she took advantage of the Second Chance Program, a drug rehabilitation and life skills program for inmates, and attended as many religious and prayer meetings as she could.
“I loved when ‘the good ladies’ came because I could get books to read. They had Christian books and that’s what I loved,” she said, referring to a different group of prison ministry volunteers who regularly visit the facility. “To see somebody from the outside that preached the word of God — it was amazing.”
She completed her GED diploma in jail and now looks to earn her associate’s degree. Her dream is to help other formerly incarcerated men and women returning from prison through a transitional house.
“I’m comfortable and secure in my life today,” she said. “God is number one in my life; my sobriety is second. I’m just grateful for everything. My goal and dream is to serve God.”
For more information on how to become a prison ministry volunteer in the Diocese of Camden, contact Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF: 856-342-4106, Sr.MaryLou.Lafferty@camdendiocese.org, or visit CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/Prison-Ministry.
The mercy of visiting the imprisoned
During his visit to the United States last September, 2015, Pope Francis made time to visit a prison. The following is an excerpt from his address to prisoners at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.
“Life means ‘getting our feet dirty’ from the dust-filled roads of life and history. All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed. All of us are being sought out by the Teacher, who wants to help us resume our journey. The Lord goes in search of us; to all of us he stretches out a helping hand. It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities. It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society. The Lord tells us this clearly with a sign: he washes our feet so we can come back to the table. The table from which he wishes no one to be excluded. The table which is spread for all and to which all of us are invited. …
“All of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from. May the knowledge of that fact inspire us to live in solidarity, to support one another and seek the best for others.”