‘We are not animals’: Courses, services aim to heal incarcerated Catholics

By Kamille Nixon Kessel
Today’s Catholic

The archdiocese’s Office of Criminal Justice Ministry provides outreach and healing to the more than 10,000 Catholics incarcerated in 35 facilities in the archdiocese. The efforts include parish-based programs that help with forgiveness and re-entry, spiritual retreats, and facilitating college-level philosophy courses for incarcerated students.
In his remarks last May to the archdiocesan conference on Prison Ministry at the Mexican-American Catholic College (MACC), Dr. James Greenaway, a philosophy professor at St. Mary’s University, described a course he teaches in the Torres Unit outside Hondo. Called “Human Dignity and Self-Appropriation,” the course introduces incarcerated students to works of philosophy and encourages the students to explore the works in their imaginations.

‘In prison, you cannot escape the truth. The truth of your personality and temperament, the truth of your physical stature in comparison with other men, the truth of your skills and your shortcomings, the truth of your strengths and weaknesses. In prison, you live and interact amongst victims and perpetrators, amongst predators, you live and move or interact amongst your enemies.’ – an incarcerated student’s essay response to Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

Dr. Greenaway aims “not to tell them what human dignity is,” he told those assembled, “but to see if they can achieve an insight into what their own human dignity means to them.” The course is made possible by an endowment to fund work on the theme of human dignity, which has a stipulation to work with the archdiocese’s office of Criminal Justice Ministry.

“I’ve always been interested in the concept of restorative justice,” Dr. Greenaway said, “but it seemed to me that, before restoring an offender to society or restoring the wrong done to a victim, there is a need to restore a grasp of the offender’s own human dignity to him or her.” As he prepared for the meeting at MACC, Dr. Greenaway asked his incarcerated students what they wanted to say to the group.

“There were two main responses,” Dr. Greenaway said. “More courses please; and please remind everyone that we are not animals.”

“What my experience in prison has shown me is that,” Dr. Greenaway told the MACC meeting attendees, “beneath the veneer of prison jumpsuits, bars, barbed wire, and tattooed skin, my students are still my students. They were once held and kissed by mothers, taught to walk by someone who held their hands, who went to school in kindergarten, who laughed with friends throughout the years, who grew up and fell in love … and who made some terrible decisions. There is a humanity in our prisons that awaits what the ‘free’ world is prepared to give.”

Deacon Robert Leibrecht, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Criminal Justice Ministry, works with colleagues to make that world a better landing spot for those who have served their time. He said his ministers find more success when the whole family is involved.

“The families that come are able to share and work on forgiveness,” Deacon Leibrecht said. “When your loved one comes out of prison, are you going to parole them to your home?” New Life Ministry Support Groups are offered in several parishes for people who have an incarcerated loved one, addiction, or domestic violence in the home, and ex-offenders returning home or on parole and probation. Four San Antonio parishes offer New Life groups: St. Leo the Great, St. Timothy, Christ the King, and St. Joan of Arc, plus one in New Braunfels at Sts. Peter and Paul.

Deacon Leibrecht said other groups serve incarcerated people and their families. One is the Texas Catholic Correctional Ministers (TCCM), celebrating its 19th anniversary. Its mission: “To be the face of Christ to those in prison.” Ministers in TCCM strive to bring a message of faith, hope, justice, peace, and reconciliation to the incarcerated, newly released, offender families, and public servants, rooted in Catholic teaching.

In Bexar County, tens of thousands of men and women annually return to the community from jail and prison. In many cases, they find inadequate housing, limited employment, and a dormant addiction ready to ignite. They face rejection on all fronts and issues with trust, fear and authority. Almost two thirds recidivate within three years (50 percent new crime and 25 percent violate parole). Since 2008, ministers in Bexar County have held initiatives such as re-entry picnics, services for substance abuse and mental health, and basic needs support. In June 2016, the Bexar County Reentry Center (BCRC) was opened to serve those coming back to the community from prison.

“…beneath the veneer of prison jumpsuits, bars, barbed wire, and tattooed skin, my students are still my students.” Dr. James Greenaway


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