Published June 2, 2014
Within moments of clearing security at the prison gate, I felt the apprehension about my first ever jail visit disappear.
On the evening of May 6, Georgia Bulletin photographer Michael Alexander and I received permission to accompany a group of prison ministry volunteers to witness confirmations and baptisms of several inmates at Lee Arrendale State Prison for female felons.
Father Thad Rudd, who volunteers with St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, was pointing out that the main prison building was originally a tuberculosis hospital constructed in 1926. Walking up the sidewalk, we ran into Grace. Grace, a docile dog, was being walked on leash by one of the correctional officers.
Father Rudd asked the officer to tell me about Grace, a “prison mascot” of sorts. The prison’s Forever Friends K9 Rescue Program finds homes for pets set to be euthanized. Sometimes staff members adopt the dogs, and sometimes the families of inmates take them. The inmates train the dogs to be adoptable. “The dogs stay in the rooms with the inmate,” said the officer. “We also have a seeing eye dog.” Later in the evening, I was to meet Hope, a black lab mix puppy who came with inmate Donna Porter to Mass.
In addition to dog training, certain inmates participate in the firefighting training program, which provides them with job skills and also helps the surrounding rural communities in need of firefighters. They put out fires and respond to emergencies while still serving sentences.
Paul Caruso, founder of St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, has been visiting the imprisoned for nearly 30 years. Caruso said there is one Catholic inmate who is teaching sign language to staff. Another, inmate Alejandra de la Maria, sentenced more than 20 years ago at the age of 17, has written two books in Spanish for children while there.
Many of them, said Caruso, have got “good hearts” despite having made big mistakes.
Following the Mass, in which five were welcomed into the Catholic Church, the women prayed the “Anima Christi,” a prayer after Communion, and the Marian prayer, the “Memorare,” for women serving time and the staff. Each inmate with whom I spoke thanked us for coming that evening. Visitors other than Caruso and his team are few and far between.
I discovered many things while visiting Lee Arrendale, perhaps the most surprising is that grace and hope can live inside prison walls.
Read more about the recent prison confirmations and baptisms, and the St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, in the May 29 edition of The Georgia Bulletin.