Hope behind bars
Two Jacksonville Legates embrace a rare corporal work of mercy with prison ministry . . .
by Sabrina Arena Ferrisi
Visiting people in prison can be daunting. It involves going through layers of security, with doors being locked behind you multiple times. It often involves speaking with people who’ve never had visitors — and those who have lost all hope.
Yet two members of Legatus’ Jacksonville Chapter involved in prison ministry call the experience enriching.
“It is very edifying for us to be a part of this,” said Legate Bob Mylod, who has been visiting prisoners in Florida for two years.
“Several of us were praying with a person on death row,” Mylod explained, “and he picked up his Bible and said, ‘I am not on death row anymore.’ He was talking about the things that had been bringing him to spiritual death.”
American prisons hold about 2.3 million inmates, according to Anthony Granado, policy advisor for the office of domestic social development with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 24% of the world’s prison population who live in 1,800 prisons and 3,200 local jails.
“There are not nearly enough people doing prison ministry that would be able to minister to all these people,” said Granado. Prison ministers include people from Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and secular groups. Granado says 85% of U.S. prison chaplains are Christians.
Prison ministers go through training and are cleared by the FBI to ensure they have clean records. Mylod said he took a one-year ministry course at St. Leo’s University in Tampa to get certified.
He goes with a team once a month to a Florida state prison. They talk to prisoners and pray with them. Catholic prisoners receive Communion and religious literature.
Don Barnhorst, also a member of Legatus’ Jacksonville Chapter, has been involved in prison ministry for more than four years. He was reluctant to get involved at first. As a retired surgeon, he was more interested in medical missionary work. But when several friends asked him to consider ministry, he began to feel God calling him.
Barnhorst now visits death row prisoners twice a month with a team. During his visits, the men are always behind bars. He gives Holy Communion to prisoners inside a pamphlet that he slides under a metal door.
“We just talk and give out literature,” Barnhorst explained. “These men are starved for literature and a friendly face.”
Although Barnhorst visits Catholics and non-Catholics alike, he has witnessed several prisoners asking to enter the Catholic Church.
“On death row, I always visit the same prisoners,” he said. “Most have done one stupid thing wrong years ago. One man committed a crime 40 years ago. I feel so sorry for them. I always come back with the message that it could have been me in there had I done one stupid thing wrong years ago.”
Most prison ministers come to oppose the death penalty, Barnhorst said. “Seeing these men worrying about when they will be killed — because they never know the exact date — and seeing that they’re nowhere near the person they were when they committed the crime, there’s just no reason to kill these men.” (Click here for a related article.)
The heart of ministry
Another issue that comes up is witnessing the incarceration of innocent prisoners.
“There are men on death row that we are convinced are innocent,” Barnhorst said. “I visited one prisoner who did not have the money to get a decent lawyer and used a public defender. They ended up convicting him. He has a re-hearing coming up. What we see is that if you are wealthy, you can get a good lawyer.”
Bishop Victor Galeone, former chaplain of Legatus’ Jacksonville Chapter and retired bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., goes every Wednesday night to MacDougall Correctional Institution, a low-security prison in South Carolina.
“I have been doing this for two years and five months,” he explained. “It has very much impacted me. I’ve become attached to these men.”
Bishop Galeone hosts weekly meetings in the prison’s chapel. He hears confessions from the Catholics and just spends time talking to the non-Catholics.
“It’s easy to bond with the inmates who attend our weekly meetings,” Bishop Galeone explained. “For instance, there’s a sad case concerning Stephen Kuffel, a former inmate at MacDougall. Completing his term in November 2013, he returned to his family and obtained steady employment. On Oct. 9, 2014, an explosion thrust him backwards. He was declared dead at the hospital. His loss affected me deeply.”
Mike Timmis, Sr., was on the board of Prison Fellowship International (PFI) for 22 years. PFI is the world’s largest association of Christian ministries working to transform the lives of prisoners, active in 125 countries.
Timmis got started in prison ministry at the request of PFI founder Chuck Colson in 1990. Colson asked what God was calling him to. Timmis responded that it was to teach prisoners self-help.
“Colson believed that the poorest of the poor were prisoners because they have lost everything, especially their human dignity,” Timmis said. “The rehabilitation of prisoners is a big problem. When prisoners get out, they often can’t work or make a decision. This is because all we do is punish in prisons. In the U.S., we have a two-thirds recidivism rate.”
Timmis and his wife hosted a former prisoner in their own home for two years. The man went on to lead a successful life. Timmis credits his wife with rehabilitating him.
“You can only change with a change of heart,” Timmis explained. “We’re all made in the image and likeness of God. I have seen the hardest of criminals’ hearts change.”
While it is true that not everyone is called to prison ministry, everyone can pray for more laborers in this difficult field.
“It is clear from scripture that God cares about prisoners because he does not want anyone to go to hell,” said Timmis.
What all prison ministers find out in time, Barnhorst said, is that their initial fear of visiting prisoners does not compare to graces that flow from helping another human being to embrace hope. Visiting those in prison is one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy. By offering friendship and prayers, prison ministers can actively reform and heal prisoners.
“I can honestly say that we get more out of the experience than we put into it,” said Barnhorst. “As we drive home, we always feel it was a wonderful day because we brought a little bit of happiness.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus’ senior staff writer.