July 2, 2023
Prison Ministry: Seeing with New Eyes – Rev. Noelle Dattilo
I have often heard people say that they think of me when they hear the passage from Matthew where Jesus says that when you visit someone in prison, you are visiting Jesus. However, the passage that most reminds me of my own experience in the prisons is the conversion of Saul, who later became Paul. Like Saul, I was zealous against people who I thought were a danger to society. I thought that all people in prison were a danger and that everyone was safer if we just kept these people locked away. However, when I started entering the prisons, instead of finding dangerous men, I found hurting and broken people. I encountered Christ in each suffering and broken person that I met and came to realize that by creating more suffering for these people, I was in effect persecuting Christ. The scales began to fall off my eyes and I began to see suffering and humanity in a whole new way.
This morning, I would like to talk about my experiences, my own transformation, and the experiences of the men that I have gotten to know. These men have worked to repair the harm they have caused, to grow and be better people. These are the stories that don’t often get told. I often feel I am one of the few voices people in prison have. I would like to share their stories with you and give them a voice. I hope my experiences can bring you hope and light this morning.
I first began to visit the prisons in the fall of 2008. I started a meditation group in the Concord medium security prison and ran the group for about two and a half years. When I first began running this group, I immediately noticed things weren’t as I expected. The men coming to this group weren’t the scary, dangerous men that I saw in the news and on TV crime dramas. I’m not going to say that there aren’t dangerous people in prison. There definitely are very dangerous people in prison, but the men that came to my meditation group were not dangerous, nor were they scary. They were like anybody else that I knew. They could have been my next door neighbor, a co-worker or even a friend. As I got to know these men better I realized that they were in fact someone’s neighbor, co-worker, friend, father, brother, and husband.
During the time I spent in the prison, I got to know Jack who got addicted to Oxycontin after a back surgery. When he could no longer get a prescription, he started buying Oxycontin on the street and then realized he could make a lot of money selling it. Then there was Antonio from Sicily, whom I felt a camaraderie with because of my own Italian roots. Antonio burnt down one of his restaurants for the insurance money and was sentenced to three years for arson. Another man in my group, Jason, got in a fight with someone harassing his sister. He knocked the man unconscious and his sister then stole the man’s wallet. Both Jason and his sister spent some time in prison for assault and robbery. The most unexpected of all was Tee who was serving two life sentences for a crime committed twenty years earlier. He was one of the most joyful people I had ever met and would often draw me pictures of Garfield and Tweetybird. There were also a few men, like Scott and Ray, who were repeat violent offenders trying to make an effort to improve their lives. All of these men were like overgrown kids who had become lost, broken, and abandoned. Overtime, they would become like my own children. I would worry when they struggled, ask about them if I hadn’t seen one of them in a while and listen to their hopes and dreams.
I can honestly say that I am a better person from having spent time with the men in Concord. Their encouragement and acceptance of myself helped me to become the person that I am today. The faith and confidence they placed in me to guide them to a better life helped me to have faith and confidence in myself. Hearing their gratitude to be alive or the fact that even though they had lost everything, they were better off than they had been before coming to prison helped me to re-evaluate my priorities. The little things that I often took for granite no longer seemed so important, and I found more joy and gratitude with what was already present in my life.
In the prison, scripture also came alive in ways it never had before. I used to joke that I’m going to write a book titled, “Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Jesus I Learned in Prison.” Unfortunately someone has already beaten me to that title, but there is a lot of truth in it. Jesus’ life and death, and the struggle of the early Christian community took on a whole new meaning for me in the light of prison, incarceration and death row. Thought I have never met anyone on death row, I have heard that many death row prisoners identify with Jesus’ arrest and execution. A lot of prisoners can also strongly relate to the struggles of the Apostle Paul. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard prisoners remind me and one another that the Apostle Paul spent many years in prison. These are the things that the men hold on to so that they can overcome their feelings of worthlessness and maintain some sense of dignity.
Watching the men at Concord form and develop their own sense of Christian community taught me what it means to be a church. Like the early Christians, I watched the men in Concord struggle to form a community, fall apart in times of crises and struggle to come back together. Like the early Christians who were forming churches in a time and place where they were not the majority religion and often found themselves harassed and persecuted, the fledgling Christian community in Concord found itself the minority within a hostile and oppressive environment. During the times when their community began to fall apart, I became like the Apostle Paul, encouraging the men that they are all one in Christ and urging them to keep the community together.
It was especially important for these men to maintain cohesion within their new community so that they could support and encourage one another to continue in the Christian life. Just as I’m sure it would have been easier for some of the early Christians to abandon their new way of life together and go back to the ways of the culture around them, it would have been easier for the men in Concord to go back to the hostile and violent ways of the prison. However, they knew that was not the kind of life they wanted for themselves and the people they cared about. So they supported one another in their efforts to continue in their new life together, and over time this new community became stronger and began to be a light within the darkness of the prison showing other prisoners and the guards a new way to live.
The similarities to the Christian story don’t pass these men by. Some of the men pointed out to me that they are like Paul writing to various communities offering encouragement and hope. Others who have been transferred from one prison to another start up Bible studies and prayer groups in each place they stop. They see the similarities with the early Apostles who travelled throughout the region starting new churches.
Despite everything that I have learned and all the wonderful experiences I have had with the prisoners, ministering to prisoners has been a bittersweet experience. The joy that I experience is frequently met with heart ache and struggle. Over the years, I watched dedicated volunteers get barred from volunteering without being given a reason why. I watched inmates after years of working hard to improve themselves get turned down for parole because they hadn’t done enough. I watched funding that in previous years went to provide mental health and addiction recovery treatment to women diverted to expand prisons for women despite the fact that 90% of women in prison suffer from mental health issues and addictions. I watch the Christian community in Concord fracture, fall apart, and struggle to come back together again.
Over the years, I also learned a lot that I didn’t know before going into the prisons. I learned that the mistakes we make continue to define us into the future. I learned that those who enter the prisons eventually have to pick a side. My focus was to help the inmates, so it appeared to some that I had picked the side of the inmates. I was told I picked the wrong side. I also learned that while the United States has 5% of the world’s overall population, it has 25% of the world’s prison population, and that the size of the prison population in the United States is surpassed only by the former Soviet Union and South Africa during Apartheid. I learned that a system designed to enhance public safety doesn’t always work with the public in mind.
I no longer run the meditation group in Concord. I have gone from volunteer to visitor, visiting men and women in various prisons in the area. Visiting is a different experience than volunteering. Instead of spending most of my time at the prison sitting with the inmates, I started spend most of my time at the prison sitting in the waiting area with the friends and families of the prisoners. The waiting area needs a chaplain. I’ve sat with women struggling to watch their small children while they make sure that they are following the strict guidelines of the dress code. The dress code is for security reason; however, it’s very detailed and easy to miss something. It’s not unusual that after a long wait, and finally being brought into the search area, called the trap, they are sent back out again because they are wearing knit pants, shorts under their skirt or some item of clothing that doesn’t follow the dress code. They have to fix their clothing and then it’s another wait with young children and babies until they are brought into the trap again. After awhile you learn the routine and things go smoother, but, many times, there has been a long wait. There were days where I waited three hours to get in only to have five minutes remaining of visiting time.
Over time, I noticed that the longer the wait is in the waiting room, the great the sense of despair. I had heard about the despair in prisons, but I never felt it until I began sitting in the waiting room. There is a palatable sense of despair that overcomes people. Even I have struggled with this sense of despair. So, I’ve tried to bring something positive to the experience. Recently, after waiting three hours to get in, I looked at the woman next to me and said, “It’s usually like this.” She said to me, “You are smiling” and I said, “What else can I do?” I can smile or I can feel the despair.
The men at concord have frequently told me that they miss the light that I bring into the dark place. This light shows them that God is present. That’s why it is important to them that I am there. That light is also needed in the visiting room, in the waiting room and everywhere else in the prison. So, my goal is to continue to bring light into the prison, in any way that I can.
Occasionally I ask myself, with everything that I have seen and experienced, “Would I do it again.” The answer is yes, every minute of it and I wouldn’t change a thing. Despite the challenges and sometimes heart aches that come with prison ministry, the sense of joy and fulfillment are profound. So I say to you just as Jesus said to his followers, “Follow me.” Follow me into the prisons. If you do, you will be profoundly changed and you will never look back again.