October 2017

When We Visit Jesus in Prison: A Guide for Catholic Ministry.  By Dale Recinella. Acta Publications. 545 pages. $29.95.

When We Visit Jesus in Prison contains superb insights into the American prison system and provides a thorough exposition of Catholic prison ministry, interspersed with anecdotes from author Dale Recinella’s 25 years of experience as a volunteer Catholic chaplain in Florida’s prisons. This guide should be read carefully by all Catholics concerned about mass incarceration in the U.S. since the 1980s, and especially by those who are either engaged in or thinking of doing prison ministry.

The book’s title comes from Matthew 25:34-40, in which Jesus at the Last Judgment condemns those who saw Him in prison and failed to visit Him. The condemned ask when they failed to visit Him in prison, and He replies, “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of the least ones, you did not do for me.” Here then is Jesus’ own summons to visit prisoners.

On top of this, we have clear summonses from recent popes. Bl. Paul VI declares that every man is our brother, even he who has committed a serious crime: “The lower a man has fallen, the more he deserves to be assisted, raised up, cared for, and honored. We learn this from the Gospel…. This is justice!” And Pope St. John Paul II, who visited in prison the man who had attempted to assassinate him, adds, “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” In spite of bad choices, the prisoner is, like the rest of us, made in God’s image and retains his humanity.

Since our Lord allowed Himself to become a prisoner on Holy Thursday, every man and woman in prison has a “special connection” to Him. Recinella concludes from this that we should not mete out vengeance to prisoners but rather offer “restorative justice” modeled on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Catholics should see to it that “the dignity of each human person applies to both victim and offender,” he writes, because we are a “Eucharistic people” who “see the presence of Jesus where we could not see it before.”

The statistics Recinella cites are cause for alarm. The prison population in this country is over two million, the highest per-capita rate in the world. In 2013, 623 per 100,000 Americans were in prison, while that figure was only 143 in England, 116 in Canada, and 584 in Russia. Most prisoners come from disadvantaged minority communities, with more African-American men incarcerated now than were enslaved in 1861. Another heartbreaking statistic is that there are ten times as many women in prison in the U.S. than there are in all the nations of Western Europe combined, and two-thirds of these women are mothers of minor children whom they never see. In addition, 20 percent of prison inmates have a serious mental illness, and 30 to 60 percent have a history of substance abuse, though few receive treatment.

Why do people commit crimes? Recinella replies that “only a small percentage of criminals are in fact sociopaths or psychopaths. Most are normal people who made bad choices.” He reminds us that we are all wounded by Original Sin, and that the lack of a consensus morality in our society can cause many of us to go astray. As John Paul II wrote, “The voice of conscience can be perverted and muted by erroneous teaching or immoral practices or by a society that renounces objective truth.” Surely, if any society in history has renounced objective truth, it is ours in the past 60 years!

On the suffering of prisoners, Recinella focuses mainly on the losses they face: the loss of freedom, choice, relationships, and a sense of self. Each inmate’s “physical and sexual integrity is always on the line.” New convicts line up when they arrive at a prison. At this “perp revue,” the meanest and strongest inmates call out the serial numbers of the new arrivals whose bodies they claim as their possession, in effect declaring their right to “use and sell” the recently arrived convicts’ bodies without their consent. In a dorm of 70 convicts, the new prisoner will fear being killed in his sleep if he refuses “to be pimped by the strongman” who claims to “own” him. Any sign of weakness or emotion can also make him the target of predators. Anger and fear are consequently the most prevalent emotions among prisoners: anger at feeling disrespected, anger at oneself, anger at the system, anger at God. There is also fear of dying in prison and being abandoned by loved ones and by God.

What is the role of Catholic volunteers in the face of such overwhelming suffering? First, they can provide inmates with the means “to redeem and sanctify the time spent isolated from society.” Second, they can help them see that there are still goals to strive for during this time, like interior maturity and spiritual advancement. Third, they can serve as prayer partners and bring prisoners the Eucharist. Recinella is right to say, “The suffering of those we comfort in prison is more than our humanity can bear. Only the Savior can bear that weight. The formula is simple, ‘listen, love, pray.’” He suggests that before starting their rounds, Catholic volunteers should pray that “all their listening in prison will be through the ears of the Holy Spirit and that all their loving in prison will be through the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

Volunteers face many frustrations. In one personal anecdote, Recinella had to stand in place until the morning count of prisoners had finally cleared. He did so while praying the Rosary. After finally being let in, an officer asked him, “Been stuck in here long?” Recinella replied, “For decades, sir,” pulling out his Rosary with a smile. He explains that volunteers, like the inmates’ visitors, are last on the power list and must not expect special treatment, especially from security guards. Regarding dangers, Recinella provides much commonsense advice and offers an anecdote about how he once foolishly disregarded several red flags and was almost taken hostage by a prisoner armed with a long “shank” (makeshift knife).

One of the most interesting sections of When We Visit Jesus in Prison treats the anti-Catholicism volunteers often encounter and have to refute, albeit with patience, especially when serving in the Bible Belt. There the pope is still the “Antichrist,” and the Catholic Church “the Whore of Babylon,” as in the most virulent Protestant tracts published in the 1520s. Some anti-Catholic ministers tell men on death row that by becoming Catholic they will end up in Hell at the moment of their execution. They also teach them that Catholic ashes are actually charred human remains and are placed on foreheads as a mark of the Beast. One prison chaplain took all the Catholic books and put them in the “minority religions” closet, which the inmates dubbed the “cult closet.” Recinella provides lists of books that a Catholic volunteer might read or consult in order to be able to answer such fundamentalists. He sees a “lay apostolate” in prison as requiring training, education, and formation.

This is Dale Recinella’s third book. [His first two, Now I Walk on Death Row and The Biblical Truth about America’s Death Penalty, were reviewed in the Jan.-Feb. 2012 and Apr. 2015 NOR, respectively — Ed.] And it is the culmination of over 25 years of reflection on and experience with our draconian system of punishment, which rests on revenge rather than restorative justice. When We Visit Jesus in Prison is a powerful, insightful, and Catholic response to that system. It recently received first place in the Resources for Ministry category in the 2017 Excellence in Publishing Awards from the Association of Catholic Publishers.

- Anne Barbeau Gardiner





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