A first hand account of how prison ministry serves both inmates and volunteers
Alexandria, Virginia’s William G. Truesdale Detention Center — known to local criminals as “the Hilton of Northern Virginia jails” — is camouflaged among the red brick of its mixed residential and commercial Old Town neighbors. But once you see it, the mammoth complex is impossible not to register.
Built in 1987, the imposing facility known as the Alexandria jail, houses about 400 inmates. These men and women face a range of local, state and federal charges. Yet, regardless of past transgressions, all inmates on good behavior have the option of attending Christian services and participating in Bible study. Mass, as with all religious services at the jail, is voluntary, but inmates must be cleared to attend. Those who do not come sit in their cell or home unit.
Once cleared, navigating the jail requires at least one escort and means braving a series of doors and elevators. At the end of the labyrinth is the blue and green multipurpose room, the site of all religious services, including Mass. It is the same place where the inmates play basketball and gather for large events.
To prepare for the weekly Wednesday Mass, jail staff and Catholic volunteers set up a table, a podium and about 50 plastic chairs too light to injure anyone if hurled. Four more chairs are tucked into corners to serve as confessionals. A blue, black and red banner with a cross and the words “Jesus loves you” in English and Spanish adorns the concrete wall. This banner serves as the cross above the altar.
The program featured a colorful cover, a headshot of the bishop and fully translated text. The last page included the news that Pope Francis condemned the death penalty and life imprisonment — the “hidden death sentence” — when he spoke to a delegation from the International Association of Penal Law Oct. 23, 2014.
The Pope’s quote, typed in bold, read: “It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples’ lives from an unjust aggressor.”
As the priests, deacons and volunteers settled into their places, inmates in green jumpsuits trickled into the room. Their sneakers featured Velcro straps but no laces. Every week, female inmates are brought in last and brought out first so as not to attract attention from male inmates. Of the six female inmates who signed up, two attended the Mass.
Bishop Loverde celebrated Mass in English and Spanish to accommodate a bilingual congregation, as is customary at the Alexandria jail.
Deputy Sheriff Valarie Wright was one of the staff members supervising the bishop’s Mass.
“(Religious programming) gives the inmates an outlet,” Wright said. “Some use it for the purpose it was intended. The large majority don’t. Some use it as a means to falsely portray that they’ve morally rehabilitated. But if it’s not in their heart, they’re still coming back here to jail.”
About half of inmates return to jail within a year of being released.
Richard Butler III, 33, one of the inmates who attended the bishop’s Mass, is in jail for a probation violation. Raised a Protestant, he comes to the Catholic Mass every week.
“I attend all Christian services because I believe in one God,” said Butler. “I’ve been trying to learn the rosary, but that’s a lot, so it’s kind of hard.”
Another inmate who attended the Mass, Louis Marelli, 44, who is there on an undisclosed federal charge, was raised Catholic. But until a jail volunteer gave him instructions in 2010, he had never recited the rosary.
“When I was saying the prayers, I was at ease,” Marelli said. “I felt the anxiety start to go away. I felt peaceful and humble.”
Marelli said he also goes to the jail meditation class, reads the Bible and listens to Christian radio.
Bill Hall, diocesan prison ministry coordinator at Catholic Charities, serves what he describes as an “administrative function,” by providing materials for services and Bible study throughout the diocese. Currently there are 19 jails and prisons supported by parish volunteers. Not all have Mass due to the logistics involved.
After spending 20 years in the Air Force and 15 years as a consultant, Hall retired. His friend introduced him to Catholic Charities, allowing him to volunteer for car ministry, where he repaired old cars for families in need, before moving to prison ministry for Kairos, an international prison ministry.
When people ask Hall if the work is “scary,” he says no and encourages them to volunteer.
“These are people who’ve made mistakes, but a lot of them are very well-versed in Christianity,” said Hall. “At times in your life, you need a spiritual charge to your battery. When I need a charge, I go to prison. Jail allows us to have very spiritual conversations that people on the outside don’t have.”
Hall’s friend, Dave Druitt, who lives in Warrenton, also volunteers for Kairos Prison Ministry, among other jail programs throughout the diocese. A Vietnam War veteran, he worked on a national security team for 25 years when he couldn’t go to work anymore because his post-traumatic stress disorder suddenly flared up. He began barricading himself in his basement and garage.
“I suffered from soul sickness and the absence of the feeling of God’s presence,” said Druitt.
He recognized the need for change. Raised Episcopalian, Druitt converted to Catholicism and began volunteering in prison ministry.
“Volunteering at the jail helped me develop self-esteem, faith and contact with God,” said Druitt.
It also helped him realize that “we are all broken. We all have shame or human error.”
He wanted to give inmates a second chance. Three years ago, Druitt started a painting business called Dreamcoat, where he employs ex-convicts to paint commercial and residential properties.
“Some of (these men) are damaged. They can’t develop a personal relationship with God,” said Druitt. “Many inmates get out of prison and have nowhere to go.”
Druitt invites his painters to attend Mass with him or join him at a men’s prayer group in their spare time. It is always a voluntary activity, not a condition of employment. Many of the contractors choose to join him.
During a typical week in November at the Alexandria jail, 45 attended Catholic Mass and 54 inmates participated in Bible study. The most popular service is Christian worship, followed by Spanish-language Baptist worship.
The jails also offer options outside of Christian worship. One of the most popular classes at the Alexandria jail is weekly meditation led by Carolyn Stachowski of Insight Meditation Community of Washington.
“I encourage a kind of alert yet relaxed frame of mind,” said Stachowski. “If we are taking the time to look inside, we are going to be on the spiritual path. Meditation has a lot of commonality with all religions.”
Jewish services and kosher food are available upon request, with services provided during holidays.
In a statement, Sheriff Dana Lawhorne said, “The religious services and classes offered to inmates are incredibly beneficial. They allow inmates who already had strong faith to remain connected to their religion, which is especially important during a difficult time in their lives. These programs also benefit inmates who may not have been particularly religious before but who now seek spiritual guidance as they try to improve their lives.”
Lenora Murphy, the volunteer coordinator at the Alexandria jail, said the dedication of the Christian volunteers impresses her.
“Christian volunteers restore worship. They stand by the inmates and sing. They point out Scripture. They pray,” said Murphy. “They help normalize what inmates do when they’re on the outside.”
Christine Stoddard is a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald where this article was originally published. It is reprinted here with kind permission.