Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Two Inmates Find Faith’s Freedom Inside Prison

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published November 10, 2005

Hays State Prison inmate Michael Roberts is at peace for the first time in his life as he and fellow inmate Matthew Cahill took important steps on their journeys of conversion to the Catholic faith and to follow Jesus Christ.

Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue, wearing red and gold vestments and miter, baptized and confirmed Roberts and Cahill Sept. 29, and challenged all inmates gathered in the chapel at Hays to strive to live with integrity and holiness, whether in prison or after their release.

The baptisms took place at a Mass before members of the prison’s Catholic community and those from the nondenominational Faith and Character-Based Dormitory, a pilot project to fight recidivism.

At 45, Roberts is serving a 20-year state sentence and then faces a 27-year federal sentence. He knows that unless paroled he won’t be released until he is in his 80s. He chooses not to speak with others about the offenses for which he was incarcerated.

“But I can honestly say that I am totally at peace for the first time in my life. I pray each day that our Lord will make a way for me to see freedom one more time and that it will be ASAP. But if it is God’s will for me to serve all my time or that I will die in here, so be it. All that really matters now is that I want to serve God and do what he wants me to do, wherever he leads me to do that now,” said the inmate, who chose the name of St. Thomas More for his confirmation name.

Also gathered for the morning service were Warden Steve Upton and other prison and Department of Corrections officials and volunteers, to show support for the new Catholics and those participating in the dormitory initiative. With the chapel’s large windows, those attending could look out of the chapel onto a grassy yard with neatly trimmed shrubbery and flowers planted by prisoners, which brought color to the concrete block facility. On the altar was a simple ceramic crucifix.

A sense of hopeful anticipation filled the room. The service was a welcome release for prisoners who have lost the freedom to do even the smallest things like chew gum or use pepper, which could be turned into a crude weapon. Recorded Christian music played and cut through the heavily controlled quietness of the complex.

Georgia has over 48,000 people incarcerated; 95 percent will eventually be released. These officials know, and studies show, that chaplaincy and faith-based programs have by far the strongest capacity for redeeming and rehabilitating inmates. While statistics vary widely on recidivism, Professor Joan Petersilia, author of “When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prison Reentry,” has estimated that about two-thirds of people released from U.S. prisons will be rearrested within three years.

Warden Upton wore a gray suit and silver tie as he sat awaiting the liturgy and spoke of his appreciation for the work of the ministry volunteers.

“We couldn’t survive without them with budget cuts (in the chaplaincy program). They do a tremendous job in coming in on their own time and ministering.”

He also praised the 65-man character dormitory, which began in 2004 in the 1,365-inmate prison, as it is helping men of various religions to learn about each other and build friendships. The program involving community partners and prison staff works to affect spiritual and social change in the inmates through various programs on topics like diversity, life and communication skills. This will help “put them on the right path,” said the warden.

“This is a pretty tough prison and that particular dorm we don’t have any problems in. It’s wonderful. I think it’s going to be a thing of the future.”

Toriarn Weldon, faith-based coordinator for the Department of Corrections, was also on hand for the Mass.

“We are investing and involving ourselves in what Matthew 25 said, ‘to the least of these,’ those inmates in our prison system,” said Weldon, adding that the new dormitory “is a huge milestone for volunteer services, for spiritual development.”

Paul Caruso, a parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta, founded St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministry in 2000 and visits this maximum security prison twice weekly, as part of an outreach across the archdiocese to bring the Eucharist and a Catholic presence to jails and prisons that don’t consistently receive either. Mass is celebrated every Monday by retired priest Father Tom Hoctor, a psychiatric chaplain who had worked for over 20 years at the state mental hospital in Rochester, N.Y., and on Thursday religious education, prayer services or adoration is offered. Concelebrating this Mass of confirmation was Father James Miceli, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Rome, the nearest parish to the prison. Caruso’s team also includes Edmund Cescutti and Frank Windler of St. Mary’s and Ken Ammerman of St. Thomas Aquinas.

During the Mass, inmate John Butra, who has a tattoo of hands cupped in prayer, led the responsorial psalm: “Exult all you upright in the Lord.”

The archbishop, with Deacon Ray Egan at his side, explained to members of the interfaith dormitory that Catholicism has seven sacraments that God gives to empower the faithful, and that the Eucharist is the source and the summit of the faith. Baptism and confirmation are in response to Jesus’ command to be born again in water and the Spirit.

“When confirmed, God gives us special power or grace to be faithful and strong witnesses of what we believe,” he said.

While God wants his children to believe, love and serve him, he gives them freedom to return that love or to reject him through sin.

“Every bad act we do, no matter how large or small, is saying we do not need God. But he doesn’t leave us alone. He sends us the help we need if we only ask him,” he continued. “Catholics believe everyone needs this help and that is why the Catholic Church is built around the celebration of the sacraments, and the most important of the seven sacraments is Mass where we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ because for us nothing else is as important as doing what Jesus said to do. He told us unless you eat this body and drink this blood you will not have life in you.”

Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven “to show if we have our act together and love God then one day too we will ascend to heaven and be with God forever … The Holy Spirit will come and help us and show the way. He said those who believe in him, his Spirit will flow from within,” continued the archbishop as prisoners listened. “We will be there to help one another because we know Jesus came to earth to help us and we want to be more like him. For Catholics this is where character begins and ends, in wanting to be more like Jesus Christ.”

He affirmed that some things work the same for a prisoner or retired archbishop.

“The same Spirit, the same faith, the same Jesus Christ, make us good people and bring us together in one family,” he affirmed. “I want Catholics here to recall the truth of the sacraments and the truth of how good it is to hear and obey the words of Jesus Christ.”

He considered it a blessing to be there. “For Christ there are no prison walls, no bars, no restrictions, and he is here and he is with you and his Holy Spirit dwells in your heart. Look for him in your heart and believe in him and know he is there by letting the water of life stream through you in the good you do for one another,” he concluded. “May God give you the power to be good people now here in prison or wherever he leads you in the future.”

He thanked them with a smile for the card with a picture of a bishop’s piece from a chess set they mailed him beforehand.

Roberts and Cahill were then called forward with their sponsors, who stood behind them and placed a hand on their shoulders. They each stated their confirmation names—St. Francis of Assisi for Cahill—and affirmed their faith in Christ, after which they leaned forward, and the archbishop poured water on their heads and then wiped their foreheads with a cloth. He confirmed them and smeared chrism in the shape of a small cross on their foreheads.

Douglas Simmons, director of chaplaincy services for the Department of Corrections, affirmed the importance of spiritual support as he spoke of efforts to bring back full-time chaplaincy to Georgia prisons, restoring what was taken in 2003 and 2004 budget cuts.

“One of the things we’re trying desperately to do is bring back full-time chaplaincy. It’s the commissioners’ vision, my vision. It’s got to be the legislature’s vision.”

He explained that faith-based initiatives are an effort to help men “become productive members of society.” He noted that Moses and David were murderers but that “when they turned their lives over to God he began to use them, filled them with his Holy Spirit and they were able to be agents of his renewing, redemptive will for creation … I encourage you all to set your goals high, make a plan, work your plan.”

Fred Head, facilities operations manager for the Department of Corrections, thanked the archbishop for his attendance and said, “What an honor and privilege it is to be in the presence and company of such a tremendous man of faith.”

Following the service the warden thanked volunteers from the Catholic community and character dormitory. “It’s wonderful (and) you have 100 percent of our support.”

Inmates presented the archbishop with a plaque made of paper and cardboard, along with thank you notes to several of the special guests.

Cahill, who is in his third year of a 21-year sentence, believes he’s always been called to the Catholic Church but had been “lost.” About a year ago he requested to attend a Mass. “When I did, it was like I had found what I had been looking for and at that, much was lifted off of my heart and joy was put back.”

He accepts that he must serve his sentence for his crime “but with the church with me I know that my time will be useful. As to what use I do not know as of yet.”

He said the impact of the retired archbishop’s visit was “tremendous through the whole prison” and that it was “a very high honor.” He noted “it does take a lot to move some of the men in here and it did.”

Roberts was previously a “fundamentalist” Baptist and had many discussions on Catholicism with Catholic inmate Richard Clark, who gave him the book by Karl Keating, “Catholicism and Fundamentalism.” While he intended to show his friend its errors, when he got to the chapter where the author explains how Jesus changed Simon Barjonas’ name to Peter at Caesarea Philippi and appointed him as chief apostle, “a light came on” and he began to realize his prejudices and misconceptions of Catholicism. By the end of the book he felt the Catholic Church was “the one, true faith” and then read “Rome Sweet Home” by Scott and Kimberly Hahn and became totally convinced that “I, too, was finally on the right path to home,” said the inmate, who has a thick mustache and speaks quickly and enthusiastically.

The Mass was “truly awesome,” with his only regret that his family and friends weren’t there—and that the pope couldn’t make it.

Roberts is also in the character dormitory and has found that “it is nice to be in a dorm of guys who are, like me, honestly striving to make positive changes in our lives to grow to become the men God intended us to be so that we can be productive members of society again, either out there or in here.”

His sponsor, Clark, said that “it was such a blessing to watch the Lord open his eyes and his heart.”

“When he began to see the truth of Catholic claims, he really became much more willing to listen and to learn. I think he would be the first to admit there is still a lot to learn, but now he has ‘ears to hear.’”

In an interview later, Father Hoctor, who moved to Atlanta in retirement, has been glad to help out ministering at Hays for about a year. He said that his theme is always, as he’d say to patients at the psychiatric center where he worked, not to give up.

“There’s so little freedom, but here if they can experience the freedom of faith, that there’s something beyond all this, then it’s worth enduring.”

Father Hoctor, 74, counsels men also and administers the sacrament of reconciliation, where he helps them to express their feelings and deal with anger rather than letting it turn into depression and self-pity. This friendly priest with white hair and a beard recalled one man who was depressed because his parole application had been rejected again, after applying for 17 years, and he won’t be eligible again for seven years.

“Would you be depressed?”

But he encourages them to “make the best of it” and to focus on their ministry of love and personal growth. “There’s a great value in getting it off your chest, if you can get out something stuffed up inside and can talk to someone you trust,” he said, adding that they all signed a card which they presented to him when he celebrated Mass on his birthday.

Caruso said that about 12 men have become Catholic since he began the ministry at Hays in 1999 and that they use a Knights of Columbus study program.

“It’s amazing to see the Holy Spirit work and touch these men’s hearts and see the realization of when they want to go into the Catholic Church. We don’t try to convert anybody. I never try to proselytize. It’s just during the week these guys usually approach us, and it’s very gratifying,” said Caruso, who was heading back up to the prison to help lead a weekend Kairos Christian retreat there. “For the team to show up every Monday and every Thursday rain or shine is very impressive to these guys and they see these guys walking the walk and they want to be part of what they’ve got. All we do is try to be an example of the walk of Christ and let them make the decisions.”

As many in the faith dormitory are more familiar with Protestant worship, he was grateful for the opportunity to expose them to the Mass, which is “all prayer and worship—that’s the difference.”

Caruso added that “the talk was tremendous” in the weeks following the service.

“Amongst the faith-based dormitory people, they couldn’t get over the ceremony.”

Two men are enrolling in the Knights of Columbus RCIA mail program for inquiry and another two are interested in learning about the Catholic religion after attending the Mass, said Caruso.

“The warden told me it was the first time he had been to a Catholic service, and he was really impressed.”