By DEACON RICHARD TOLCHER, Special to the Bulletin | Published May 16, 2019
In Matthew 25:46, Jesus instructs us that whatever we do to the least of our brothers, we do unto him. For me, this is a guiding principle in prison ministry.
In my 32 years as an ordained deacon, God called me to prison ministry in a variety of venues and circumstances. Previously, I worked in the federal penitentiary as the Catholic chaplain and served as director of a juvenile detention facility. Currently, I serve as the director of Prison and Jail Ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
There are over 50,000 inmates in Georgia prisons. Of that number, approximately 3% are female. In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, there are more than 22 prisons and more than 70 jails. There is one federal and one state prison, as well as privately owned locations. Most countries have their own jail, and several cities within our archdiocese have independently owned locations.
Currently, I work with four inmates on a monthly basis and another inmate bi-monthly. Together, we pray the rosary, discuss a Scripture passage and spend time in contemplative prayer. I also schedule Mass for Catholic inmates on death row. Sometimes, inmates will invite their friends to come.
Within the Archdiocese of Atlanta, there are priests, deacons and lay ministers serving people in prisons and jails. There are two full-time priests and several people assisting part-time.
Andrew, an inmate I worked with in 2015 was on death row for killing a police officer. He was a Vietnam War veteran, and as one myself, we would share experiences and banter about our service. We only had a couple of visits. On the day of his execution, we spent some time praying together. That day he said to me, “You’re in charge.” At first, I thought this was more military banter. However, I later learned he wanted me to take care of his mother because I was already visiting someone else in the same nursing home where she lived. During visits with his mother, I would read to her and push her around in a wheelchair.
While serving as director, four inmates I worked have been executed. I had the privilege of baptizing two men; one executed less than two weeks later.
Keith, an inmate I work with gives warm greetings when I come for visits and attends Mass regularly, even though he is not Catholic. He was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Two years ago, when our ministry hand delivered Christmas packages to the inmates, Keith said to us, “I want you to know how much I appreciate you. This is the best Christmas I’ve ever had. And I won’t be here for the next Christmas.”
He is still with us today—Keith is one of us.
If you feel called to this ministry, there are various ways to get involved. First, find out what is already in place at your parish. Some churches already have teams ministering to inmates incarcerated within their boundaries. If there is not an active ministry at your parish, consider talking with your pastor about starting one.
A church prison ministry can organize a parish clothing drive. At the end of a long sentence, inmates may live in a transition center. Many of them have no clothing and donations are needed as they start working in the community.
Another great way to serve is to become a pen pal of inmate. Some have lost contact with their family and have no one visiting them. There are guidelines to help you get started. Some pen pals of inmates have progressed to become visitors and a few became baptismal godparents or confirmation sponsors.
God calls us to minister in different ways and gives us courage and strength to carry out his will. It is important to listen to the Lord speak to your heart and have the awareness to respond to his call. Prison ministry is an opportunity to serve as a spiritual friend to those in need.
Deacon Richard Tolcher, director of the prison and jail ministry for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.