Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Volunteers Help Inmates Create Catholic Community

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 22, 2004

It was after Joseph Barnes committed his life to Jesus while living six and a half years on death row and studying his childhood Bible that doors started opening. He had his death sentence commuted and received life in prison—and hope in Christ and his Hays State Prison Roman Catholic Community.

Barnes, who has five tattoos, including one with a cross and roses and another with his daughter’s name, now is serving life without parole for armed robbery and murder. He was raised a Baptist and even played bass and guitar at teen services before he started partying and “got lost.” He recalled how, on death row, he always sat on the bed in his cell, blocking out the noise so he could read.

“I got in a fight and ended up taking a man’s life, and it’s pretty much cost me most of mine,” Barnes explained.

“When I got locked up, the first thing I asked for was the Bible that my mom had given me at age 12. I got to reading it and started thinking about all the different denominations. I spent all the years on death row reading and studying the Bible and praying. What God showed me I try to live by,” he said softly, with a Southern accent. “Most of my life I tried to do things my way, and it’s easy to see my way didn’t work. One night I was reading and praying, and I finally realized I had to do things God’s way … When I realized I had to do things His way, I got a different lawyer assigned to my case … Everything changed. I had a whole new outlook on life, and it’s just been growing ever since.”

Barnes, 36, is serving time at Hays State Prison in Trion, a maximum security facility near the Alabama border for those who have committed felonies ranging from triple homicide to child sexual abuse. Catholicism is alive there. After exploring different Christian denominations, Barnes took a Knights of Columbus RCIA correspondence course to become one of 11 men who, in three years, have come into the church at Hays. He joined on May 14, 2001. Through another self-study program he, supported by Catholic Don Gale, was then received into a third order Carmelite novitiate this past May.

He has been an active participant over the past four years in the ministry of Paul Caruso and his team of Edmund Cescutti and Tom Moriarti, Frank Windler and Ken Ammerman, who’ve helped Barnes and others to nurture and strengthen their faith and become leaders in evangelization.

Barnes looks forward to every Tuesday’s Communion service and Friday’s catechesis led by Caruso, a Catholic who travels around the archdiocese to bring the Eucharist to prisoners who otherwise wouldn’t receive it weekly. Caruso has served at Hays for nearly four years—even bringing a tree on Christmas.

“They’re never late, all the time encouraging us, giving us helpful advice to get through whatever problems we’re dealing with, making sure we have plenty of support, information, booklets, prayer cards,” said Barnes, in an interview before the June 8 prayer service and following a strip search of workers for any stolen material in the optical lab where he works.

“They’re like clockwork; they’re here every Tuesday and Friday … If for any reason they’re not going to be here they let us know ahead of time,” he said. “It’s like an anchor to hold onto. Really, I’m sure you can imagine what prison life would be like. That gives us a lot of peace of mind that we can hold onto things. It’s like getting on an island before going out into the war zone.”

As promised, Caruso drove up that day in his white mini-van to Hays, passing by the Trion Wal-Mart and a homespun museum of collected junk art of Howard Finster. Passing by grassy hills, a lake and mountains, Caruso then made his way carrying a box of missals through a second checkpoint into the concrete-block facility surrounded by a cyclone fence and topped with razor wire.

After setting up, Caruso then called Barnes and others to worship, asking them to turn to page 12 in their missals. The Hays inmates, wearing white uniforms with blue stripes and “state prisoner” written across the back, appeared quiet and attentive as they entered into worship in the simple chapel with a small crucifix on the altar that had roses beneath it. Beyond another room by the chaplain’s office was a table displaying a hodgepodge of Christian literature including a “Q and A” on “why do Catholics do that?” and “Let’s Talk!” a Catholic prison newsletter. A Romanian prisoner read the responsorial psalm as others sang the response, “O Lord, our God, how wonderful is your name in all the earth.” The second reading was in Spanish by a Mexican native. At one point the group joined hands together and bowed their heads prayerfully. Others could be seen through the window playing baseball outside in the grassy yard within the complex. Men went around the room and hugged each other during the sign of peace. Caruso affirmed that afflictions produce endurance, and endurance strengthens character and challenges them to proclaim the Gospel.

“Christ didn’t say ‘go out and preach.’ He said proclaim. You don’t even have to use words to proclaim. Live the life, walking the walk, talking the talk. Even in the situation we’re in here you can’t always take the high road,” said Caruso. “Don’t forget we’ve got the tool. We’ve got the power. The most important thing we have is the Eucharist. It’s our power and our strength.”

Closing the service, inmate Richard Clark, who is in charge of music, pushed the button on the tape recorder to play a comforting David Haas hymn, “Do not be afraid I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me. I will lift you up, I love you and you are mine.”

Walking down the sidewalk after the service, pointing out a yellow line inmates must walk on the outside of, Caruso expressed his satisfaction in seeing all men participate. “They’re trying to make it a real church—the Roman Catholic Community at Hays Prison.”

Driving 600-800 miles a week across North Georgia, this extraordinary minister of the Eucharist calls himself “Christ’s delivery boy,” having founded St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries in 2000. He named his ministry after St. Joseph because he, with his love for sinners, gave prisoners courage and hope. He heard their confessions and stayed with them until they were hanged, reportedly leading over 60 condemned men to die in the peace of Christ.

“God’s given me a love for these guys. Although there are many things that I can’t give them, what I can deliver is God’s message of hope, love and forgiveness,” Caruso said.

And after giving up his part in his Squeaky Clean Internet filtration company, in 2003 he pursued his calling for prison ministry full time. The ministry is supported by Caruso’s parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Alpharetta and Msgr. David Talley, the pastor, but relies on donations and needs volunteers.

“God said, ‘Go do the work and I’ll take care of the rest of it,’ and he’s been so very faithful,’” he said. “I’m a support ministry.”

Caruso has actually been delivering that message throughout the Georgia prison system for over 18 years, first through his involvement with the interdenominational Kairos Prison Ministries, in which he also still serves. Reluctant to respond to an invitation to get involved with Kairos, once inside he was hooked. While getting involved, he became aware of a hunger for the sacraments of the church, which were not being administered regularly to Catholic inmates. “One of the inmates came up to me crying. He says ‘why can’t we get Communion every week? Aren’t we supposed to go to Mass once a week?’ … One guy calls me over and says ‘you got me any of those rosary beads?’”

“The 45,000 men and women serving in the Georgia prison system are mostly forgotten by our society,” Caruso continued. “Many have also been abandoned by their families and friends; 85 percent of all men in jail after five years have no contact with the outside world …. I’ve got guys who’ve said ‘I’ve been here 30 years, and this is the first letter I’ve ever gotten.’”

He piloted his nonprofit program at Hays, Hays Prison Annex, Clarke County Jail and Forsyth County Jail, ensuring that a priest administers the sacraments once each month and that a Catholic service occurs at least weekly. His goal is to arrange for a weekly Catholic presence in all area prisons, and then go to local churches and recruit a team of volunteers to take over the ministry. He set up a ministry for members of the University of Georgia Catholic Center at the Clarke County Jail, which they now run independently.

“I want to make sure there’s a weekly Catholic presence in every prison … I’m trying to focus on maximum security because these guys don’t leave … I’m just trying to find the holes and fill them,” he explained. “I try to make sure all inmates have a Catholic Bible, catechism, rosary, scapular, and I try to give them a book on how to say the rosary and current Catholic literature.”

Caruso gives names of people for inmates to pray for to get them out of themselves and give them a greater sense of usefulness and “value to their life,” comparing their lifestyle to that of monks. He also holds first Friday adoration, providing cherished quiet time.

“It moves your heart. You see these guys kneeling on a concrete floor or prostrate on a concrete floor in front of the Eucharist. It’s just amazing,” he said. “The whole key to this thing is it’s just a ministry of being there.”

He’s also there for the Muslims, arriving early on Fridays to sit with them to allow them to hold their prayers. As Catholic inmates talk with him, he doesn’t try to be a counselor but makes referrals. He can lead them to Jesus, however.

“Once they become responsible for their own actions and take responsibility for their own actions then they can open their hearts to God,” said Caruso. “You go into cell blocks; they’re just like sponges. When you’re at the bottom of the heap, all you’ve got to rely on is God.”

Inmate Clark, 38, has been coming to Caruso’s services since they began and recalled how when he first arrived at Hays there were only about five who gathered for Catholic prayer. He has spent 17 of the last 18 years in prison for two sexual offenses, having been incarcerated from 1986-90 before repeating the offense and receiving another 20-year sentence without parole in 1991. He said he was baptized a Catholic, but after his mother died, he fell into destructive behavior. He went through the RCIA program at the Cathedral of Christ the King while on bond, cutting “a deal” with God that if he was not sentenced he would embrace the faith. After eight years of study in prison, he joined the church in 1994.

As he rarely has visitors, Clark is deeply grateful as well for Caruso’s ministry, citing from Hebrews, “Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them.”

For him the past has slipped by, but the future comes slowly. “It’s our link to the community of the church. We know we are a part of the church community but to know there are people willing to come in and spend the time and be as faithful … (Caruso has) developed a strong sense of empathy for us through (Kairos) as well, when it seems like all of society is being tough on crime and doesn’t want to think about people in prison. It’s one of the corporal works of mercy to visit the imprisoned. Just because our sins maybe have been more public or severe doesn’t mean they can’t be forgiven.”

Wearing thick brown glasses, the inmate said he is “down” less than he used to be and noted the intensified importance of keeping a positive attitude there. He reads, including Catholic authors like Scott Hahn.

“It can be depressing if you think that everything to be had is out there,” he said. Working previously for a marketing company “I had a lot of good business contacts. I hoped to make money and have a nice house, but now it’s … ‘what can I do to be of service to God?’”

After experiencing the miracle of getting off death row, Barnes believes that parole is possible but “leaves it in God’s hands.” He strives to make every day count and not waste time on “things that don’t mean anything.”

“If I’m in prison or out of prison, I’ve got to keep on believing and keep on searching and making the best of my time on earth. I’m trying to spend my time not thinking so much about this world but what’s going to happen in the next,” he said. “As long as you have peace on the inside, then everything is going to be peaceful around you … It’s got to come from inside.”

While he never knew any Catholics, Barnes began studying Catholic theology and found that what the church teaches is the same as what the Bible had revealed to him. He joined the Carmelite third order to become more disciplined in his prayer life.

On Monday through Thursday when he works in the optical department, he always prays morning and evening prayers and the rosary at lunch and is a bit of a “hermit” in devoting his free time to religious studies, strengthening him to deal with the hostile and immoral. He has written to the family of his victim asking forgiveness and hopes one day for a response.

“It’s having a more purposeful prayer life in the Carmelite family, having a group of people all over the world with the same interest as me, a big encouragement, discipline to keep up that prayer life daily … I am far from perfect but to live a truly holy life for God is my goal, and the order will certainly help me do this.”

He does receive occasional visits from his family. His daughter was born three months after his incarceration, and she, now 12, and her mother visit three times a year.

Caruso has shared with the men his own story of struggle to forgive and find peace. He is rewarded by seeing the peace and growth in these men.

“God just grabs you, and you go back. I’ve been going out 18 years. I didn’t pick this for myself. God picked me. Fifteen years in the software business, and now this is what I enjoy,” he said. “They need something to quiet their souls. When they come here, God talks to them. Once they get to that point of thinking of starting to serve time instead of doing time, they’re walking the walk inside the prison.”


Tax-deductible donations can be sent to the nonprofit St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, Inc., 365 Chaffin Ridge Court, Roswell 30075. For information contact Paul Caruso at (770) 998-2651 or