Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Prison Ministry Changes Those ‘Most Marginalized’

By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 23, 2008

Jesus told his disciples: “‘For I was … in prison and you visited me.’”

Matthew 25:36 leaves little room for confusion about Jesus’ expectations of serving the imprisoned.

The Archdiocese of Atlanta is fortunate to have committed Catholics, as well as Christians from other denominations, perform this act of mercy throughout North Georgia as they work in conjunction with the Jail and Prison Ministry of Catholic Charities Atlanta, Inc.

By contributing to the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, area Catholics financially support this vital ministry to some of “the most marginalized,” particularly those on Death Row, according to Jim Powers, coordinator of the outreach ministry.

Society has “put a black mark” on their lives for what was in some cases one act often influenced by drugs or alcohol, he explained. He stressed the importance of the Catholic belief in redemption and “that we can change and become people other than who we are now.”

Components of the prison ministry include providing the sacraments to Catholics in area prisons as well as catechizing those interested in the Catholic faith. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory tries to schedule visits each year and has commented on the “powerful” impact of the experience, Powers shared. Other priests, deacons and lay people commit their time thereby living out the church’s teaching of preferential treatment of the poor.

The most recent development for the Jail and Prison Ministry in the past few years has been the addition of a new program called Thresholds, which replaced the previous One Church One Inmate program that promised “everything” yet provided little training, Powers said. Thresholds is open to male and female inmates of any faith or of no faith, and offers them the hope of redeeming their lives as it focuses on teaching effective decision-making skills.

“One of the objectives is to give (inmates) a clue as to the process of making thoughtful decisions. It’s something basic, something simple … so they’re not back in prison,” explained Powers who recently led a training session of 15 excited volunteer mentors.

He spoke on the reality of prison life that inmates face.

“In an ordinary day, the free person in a free world makes 600 to 700 decisions in a day. You have (practice) choosing possibilities. The prisoner may make 50 decisions a day. They’re told what time to get up, what to wear, what to eat–the whole day contains fewer choices.”

While the number of choices may be limited they still face the challenge of handling emotions ranging from possible confrontations with correctional officers and other inmates to family situations over which they have less control.

“What if their children are acting up in school? What can they say and how can they handle that situation? And they also may have a marital relationship to consider. They do have things they make decisions about.”

Powers stressed two particularly important reasons for offering the Thresholds program, which is housed with the Village of St. Joseph Counseling Services, a part of Catholic Charities Atlanta, Inc. First, inmates often lose the ability to make decisions and then fall into the rut of “reacting to the world around them without thinking, which is how they got into prison.” Many times they have failed to think through how their actions may impact others.

Second, most were never taught how to make a good decision and continue a cycle that “deals with a problem in the same way.”

“They need to go counter to what their impulse is and not solely react to the world around them but assess a situation in the short-term and make a good decision.”

Thresholds has been developed to address this reality.

Powers brought the program to the Atlanta Archdiocese from Buck County, Penn., where it was first started in 1972 by Dr. “Mickey” Burglass, who himself was incarcerated and had observed his fellow inmates’ inability to make decisions. While imprisoned Burglass, not then a doctor, taught other inmates how to read and observed that not until his imprisoned peers internally made the decision to learn to read did it take hold. After prison Burglass attended Harvard University and formulated the process that has taught others how to make good decisions, which is key to improving one’s situation in life.

“We try to do with them in six weeks what did not happen in their first six years of life,” Powers said.

While the volunteers meet with inmates, called clients, for six weekly sessions, the complete program spans eight weeks. During the one- to two-hour weekly sessions the trained mentor uses a workbook to explain to the inmate the six-step process of decision-making, which includes defining the situation, goal setting, developing possibilities, evaluating possibilities, making the decision and implementing the decision.

Each week after the mentor and inmate go over one of the steps, a small group of inmates participating in the program explore each step through discussions, by watching videos or role-playing.

“On the micro-level, they are one-on-one with volunteers,” Powers said. “On the macro-level, they meet as a class and complete book exercises and participate in discussions.”

Inmates are often impressed to learn of the volunteers’ commitment. “It surprises them that these mentors come from across town, often 35 to 40 miles, to be there and do their mentoring.” He tells the inmates, “It’s costing them money. … They don’t get paid; they’re coming because they care about you.”

One such person is Sandra Smith who enjoys giving away “her gift of helping” as a volunteer mentor for the Thresholds program. She had also volunteered with the One Church One Inmate program but prefers the Thresholds program as it helps inmates in “concrete ways.”

“It helps them stop and look at other people’s circumstances and helps them look at themselves, what they can do differently, and asks them to focus more on actions and their consequences,” Smith said.

She pointed to two specific ways in which the program affects change in behavior, the first being goal setting.

“Many of our clients have goals, but when they cover the need for them to be specific, achievable and measurable, it seems they (now) understand the importance and connect that to actually realizing when a goal has been achieved.  If it is too vague you never know if or when it has been achieved.”

Another important area is for them to prioritize wants and needs when setting goals.  “For many inmates, they’ve focused on what they wanted and not focused so much on their needs. We teach them that both are important, but the order of priority should be needs then wants.”

The program is “simple” and most useful when prison counselors select inmates receptive and mature enough to see its value.

“These people aren’t bad people,” Smith said. “The ones I work with have been screened before I work with them. I help them and see that they do change.”

Some graduates of the program have expressed interest in returning as mentors. “They can join the team in two years” after their release.

When inmates take the program seriously, results are encouraging, Powers said. His most recent group of four inmates spans men in their 20s to 50s. “They all have started helping one another, which is just key, and encouraging each other to do better by the program.”

There is no follow-up with inmates once they complete the program. “Our intent is to help them develop a sense of the process in eight weeks.”

Some people may ask if this program is truly a ministry as it has no spiritual component. Powers explained how often inmates may have “a jailhouse conversion but get 20 feet from prison and it’s gone.”

“The argument is to train people not to go back to prison.”

Once they learn to make good decisions and don’t return to prison, “later … you get a committed conversion,” Powers said.

Joe Krygiel, CEO and secretary for Catholic Charities Atlanta, Inc., believes the Thresholds program illustrates one of the many ways Catholic Charities puts Annual Appeal dollars to good use in service of the local church. It provides for released inmates to “readjust to a normal life and a culture outside of prison,” he said, adding also that it gives volunteers a chance to serve incarcerated men and women through “this unique ministry.”

“It is a perfect example of putting Christ’s saving love into action.”