By Sr. Christina Murphy, SNDdeN
When I first began my ministry in 2004 at Our Lady of the Hills Parish in Columbia, South Carolina (SC), I never expected to be involved in Prison Ministry. In my first meeting with the pastor, he told me about the large number of the correctional institutions located within our parish boundaries, even though such boundaries in SC are loosely acknowledged and configured. He asked me to become involved in this critical area of parish life, since no one was visiting the women’s correctional institutions. Once I completed all the paperwork, background screening and orientation, I began this new and challenging ministry.
In South Carolina, there are 22 correctional institutions which do not include the detention centers, jails, 4 federal correctional institutions and the Department of Juvenile Justice. These institutions have three levels: Level 3 for high maximum security, Level 2 for medium security and Level 1 for minimum security or work camp. When I began my service in prison ministry, there were two women’s prisons in Columbia, SC, one maximum and the other minimum security. In July 2016, the minimum security prison was changed to a men’s facility and the women were moved over to the maximum security facility.
From the beginning, I recognized that God was present in this new venture. I made an immediate connection with the women who attended our Catholic services. These inmates were both Catholic and non-Catholic. All who came seemed to crave a spiritual
connection and wanted to hear the Word of God, in listening to Scripture. For some, this was the first time since early childhood that someone had spoken to them of God and God’s love for them. I remember the first time in teaching these women that each of us is
created in the image and likeness of God and that each time someone looks at one of them or they look at another person, individuals can see a little bit of the face of God. So touched to the heart by this concept of being persons who are reflections of God, some of the women even wept at this thought! I knew then that this prison ministry was a call to me for further transformation.
As the ministry has grown, more involvement and activities became possible. Eventually two additional women joined me each week in visiting the facilities. Now, a diocesan priest visits the correctional institutions across the state and celebrates a Eucharistic liturgy once a month. He also provides the Sacrament of Reconciliation when requested. Each Christmas Eve, our bishop goes to one correctional institution in the state to celebrate Mass with the inmates. We take to the prison a meal at Christmas time after each item has been approved by the warden. We bring the women hygiene items, such
as toothpaste, shampoo, body wash lotion, etc. Again, the size and type of items is determined by the Department of Corrections.
We are able to provide these items from generous parish members and through a fund from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. According to a statistics report in 2016, there are about 20,000 inmates in these 22 institutions. The state spends $49.50 per day for food, housing and personal care of the inmates. Of the 22 institutions, 2 are for women and 20 for men. Nothing is free in prison. The inmates have to pay fees for medical visits and hygiene items: they do this through a special account, a personal account in which inmates keep any money sent by family or friends. It is much like a “mail in bank.” If the person has no outside financial help, the inmate is listed on the indigent list. Due to budget cuts, there are not many educational opportunities in these penal institutions, and especially not for women. The men in some institutions are able to learn horticulture and make furniture. The needs of prisoners, both women and men often go unseen.
In June 2017, we held the first state wide Prison Ministry Conference, so well attended that we had to close off the registrations. From this Conference we are developing a Diocesan Plan. We are meeting with people who volunteered to be on Advisory Boards, to work on committees, such as programs for Volunteer Training, Re-entry Programs for ex-offenders, Victim Assistance etc. We are planning for an Office of Prison Ministry in our diocese to help oversee all volunteer services in these correctional institutions.
Necessary Work of Mercy
So much is still needed for all persons who are imprisoned, especially for volunteers who are willing to step forward and give their time, talent and even expertise to the imprisoned. As ministers in prisons, we recognize the necessity for programs to support persons who serve their terms and are released back into society. They need mentors,
jobs, places to live, transportation, supportive people in their lives, and most definitely, a Church which accepts and challenges them to be the persons that God created them to be. Prayer with and for prisoners and for those whose circumstances in life has led them to crime is another work of mercy for all Christians and believers in our good God.
One day when I was leaving one women’s institution, I saw a pencil sketched picture on the wall. The picture was titled: Forgotten Faces. It showed three faces, all women, looking out from behind bars. It caused me to wonder:
• What faces have we forgotten that once were so present to us?
• Family members, friends, those who have passed away—faces we thought we would never forget.
• What about our own face? Have we forgotten where the laugh lines,the worry lines have come from? The ever-aging process?
• What faces do we see today when we look in a mirror or see someone on the street?
• Who do we see in those faces? Do we take the time to see the face of a child of God, hidden behind whatever face is presented to us?
Reprinted from Good Works, Volume 13, No. 2, November 2017.
Published in print two times a year and on-line monthly (snddengw.org).
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