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Prison ministry dangerous but necessary, delegates told

By Val Hymes
2002-149
6/12/2002
[Episcopal News Service]  'Prison ministry is a very dangerous profession,' psychotherapist Dr. Margaret Kornfeld told the Seventh National Prison Ministry Conference, meeting June 6-9 at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis. 'Working in a toxic environment is stressful.'

Serving as the conference chaplain, Kornfeld, the author of 'Cultivating Wholeness' and president of the American Pastoral Counseling Association, declared that 'the prison system is reinforcing violence in this country and is part of the violence itself. Until we establish a network of care to enter those walls, we have no chance of breaking the system.'

The delegates attending the conference were warned about 'burning out' and becoming ineffective ministers. They were urged to connect with others and themselves, to lead a balanced life and to deal with addictions that often include 'busyness.' Others attacked the 'criminal injustice system' and warned that the system not only is 'reinforcing violence, but is part of violence itself.'

Restorative justice that involves the victim, the offender and the community, said author Harmon Wray, consultant to the Episcopal Church and other denominations, is the only way to change a 'retributive' system designed to punish the offender and deprive victims of restitution and reconciliation. 'Prosecutors consider you a bad victim if you don't want revenge,' he said.

When mental hospitals were closed, said chaplain Willie Crespo of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 'we stopped rehabilitating and shuffled people with mental diseases into prisons.' Crespo uses a 'rolling altar' to reach the floors of the 10-story high-rise Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, California. He makes a quick-change transformation of the small chapel for the Muslim and Jewish services with icons and art. But he could not do it all without volunteer chaplain and lay ministers. 'They are invaluable,' he said.

Presiding bishop to visit Death Row

The Rev. Jackie Means, director of prison ministry at the Episcopal Church Center, told the group that Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold plans to visit a death row next year. He has been given five sites to work into his schedule.

'We must get the bishops--the leaders--to lead, so the followers can follow,' Means said. 'We must get the top and the grassroots to work together. I don't understand the silence. The silence is killing people.'

Means said she hopes to hear from bishops when someone is about to be executed, or when there is debate about mandatory minimum sentences, the privatization of prisons or a death penalty moratorium. 'Why don't editors of diocesan publications question them?' she asked.

How to lobby Congress

An analyst for the church's Government Relations Office in Washington, D.C. warned that members of Congress rarely read e-mail or form letters and that petitions are ineffective.

'The best way to get their attention,' said John B. Johnson IV, 'is to fax a hand-written or typed letter, because postal mail is delayed for months by the anthrax scare.'

He urged support for upcoming legislation such as S.191, which would abolish the death penalty; S. 233, which proposes a death penalty moratorium, and S. 486/H.R. 912, the Innocence Protection Act, which deals with inmates' rights to DNA testing and other protections against wrongful convictions. 'You have an enormous amount of credibility with the leadership,' he told the delegates. 'Use it.'

Prison programs attract inmates

Those attending the meeting also heard about the various Kairos programs at an Ohio prison, which have reduced recidivism, 'hostility and tension' and have led inmates to send resumes to the warden begging to be transferred there.

'Kairos has literally transformed the culture in the institution,' said Christine Money, warden of the Marion, Ohio, Men's Correctional Facility. She has introduced dozens of new programs. One, Kairos Horizon Communities, builds year-long interfaith communities and leaders inside the facility. Community, state, and federal officials and volunteers bring in programs including anger management, family relations, computer skills and mentoring.

Kairos Outside, for women relatives of inmates, and Kairos Torch, for youthful offenders, are also changing the institution, Money said. Other programs include Godparents, which brings in one-on-one weekly visitors; Promise Keepers, a spiritual renewal program for men; Passage, a youth mentoring system; a Silent Choir of 50 men who sign with music; Ministry of Theatre; a Prisoner to Prisoner daily devotional written by inmates for inmates; parenting programs for fathers to read and record books for their children; the Prison News Network, with 20 television shows a week produced by inmates; and the Lifeline program for computer literacy.

'We create an environment where people can step up and grow,' said Money. 'God is welcome.'

Among those attending the meeting were the Rev. Douglas Jerome, who teaches Education for Ministry (EFM) inside a prison, and his seeing eye dog, Brogan, who quickly became the conference mascot.

Another delegate, the Rev. Nadeem Sadiq, is chaplain in a Pakistani prison that holds 3,000 inmates. Only 100 are Christians. Sadiq was shot in the leg by the Taliban before he brought his family to this country. He said plans to return to his home despite threats that he will be accused of trying to convert Muslims by giving them a small piece of soap or medicine.