View Full Version : Chaplains, religious volunteers bring hope to inmates

08-14-2004, 07:05 PM
Chaplains, religious volunteers bring hope to inmates
Friday, August 13, 2004
By Caryn Meyers Fliegler
Staff Writer-Jackson Citizen Patriot

On a recent Monday evening, more than 25 prisoners gathered in the library of the Charles Egeler Correctional Facility, an intake center for the prison complex in Jackson County, to attend a Catholic prayer service.

Their eyes directed at green missalettes, they read responsively with Matt Shannon, a deacon for St. Mary Catholic Church in Jackson, and then spoke prayers of their own.

"I pray that our kids have better things in life ... that they don't grow up lonely and behind bars," one man said in a solemn voice.

A prisoner sitting in the back of the room stood up and walked to the podium.

"No one's perfect," the man, slim and with a strong voice, said. "We all make mistakes. This is our punishment. Every sin you commit, God will hold you accountable for it. So long as you have faith in him, you will be OK."

Most Jacksonians know that a sprawling prison complex lies to the north of I-94. But many residents rarely come into contact with the correctional facilities or prisoners.

Yet, Shannon, a volunteer, and a wealth of other people ensure that those who are incarcerated have access to religion and spiritual guidance.

That freedom to practice religion -- guaranteed by the Constitution -- gives many prisoners a connection to the outside world, and a way to move on from past crimes and mistakes.

For some, it also provides hope and rehabilitation.

"I think prison was an eye-opener for many of them," said Chaplain David Leach of the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility. "They realized that perhaps they need to make some changes in their life and chose a faith group to do that."

The Citizen Patriot was not given permission to interview prisoners for this story. Observing recent services within prison walls provided a glimpse of the impact religion can have on the incarcerated.

At the beginning of Shannon's service at the Egeler facility, many men walked into the room with clenched jaws and eyes looking downward. By the end, many seemed to connect with Shannon and his service.

Some even laughed at one point, their eyes brightening if only momentarily.

Religion could be a help to these men when they re-enter society, religious volunteers said.

"If (they) become active in religious programming, it becomes easier to make that a part of the religious community when (they) leave," said Dave Burnett, special activities coordinator for the correctional facilities administration.

Approximately 5 percent of prisoners in Jackson County facilities attend religious services or take other steps in order to observe a religious tradition, according to Burnett.

They have access to a range of religious services and supplies, including Bibles, rosaries, meditation beads and copies of the Quran.

There are limitations, though. For example, prisoners must use special short rosaries since longer ones are prohibited by the Department of Corrections.

There are not always enough Bibles to go around. Requested materials, such as a reading that Shannon recently used during a service, must be cleared through the Department of Corrections.

"Some of the things are dependent on what security level they're housed at," Leach said.

Religious groups at Jackson facilities include Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Muslims, American Indians, Seventh Day Adventists, Moorish Science Temple adherents and others.

At each of the five Department of Corrections facilities in Jackson County, an appointed institutional chaplain -- a state-paid employee -- oversees religious activities.

Considered a "religious program coordinator," the chaplain may run some services but doles out much of that responsibility to volunteers who come from different faith backgrounds.

"Our volunteers are a treasure," Leach of the Southern Michigan facility said.

In prison, religious observation must take place under intense supervision. Prisoners sign up for services ahead of time, so guards know where they are at all times.

"I have to be very vigilant," said Chaplain Isa Abdul Basir of the Egeler facility. "There's no free movement in prison."

In 1987, services were restricted and special activities were closed down for 15 days at Southern Michigan Prison after several members of the Moorish Science Temple of America were charged with stabbing and plotting to kill a prison guard.

Some prison officials believed the SMP prisoners who followed the Moorish Science Temple, an Islamic sect founded in New Jersey in the early 20th century, used the religion as a front for extremism and violence.

Since then, religious services of varying faiths have been temporarily shut down as a result of problematic activities, said Burnett of the correctional facilities administration.

Another sect called the Melanics was disbanded by the Department of Corrections in the late 1990s because the sect was fostering violent activity, according to Basir.

Despite the fact that some prisoners use religion as a front for violence or illegal activities, religion can be restorative to other prisoners and therefore helps the prisons function, chaplains and volunteers say.

"If you can enable them to talk, and you do a lot of listening, if they can get to that point where they trust you, a lot of the problems that they face will kind of be worked out by themselves," said the Rev. Paul Grehl, who volunteers at two Jackson County correctional facilities.

A member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, a religious order with headquarters in Toledo, Ohio, Grehl has years of listening experience as the former chaplain for Lumen Christi High School.

"I certainly have a real compassion for these guys," Grehl said.

As does Shannon, who has volunteered at Jackson County correctional facilities for eight years.

He remembers sitting across a table from a man who, Shannon had only just learned, committed a murder.

Shannon put his own shocked thoughts aside -- "What have you done?" -- and instead channeled his faith.

"You can still be a positive influence in here," he told the man. "You've got options. God still loves you."

On a recent evening, Shannon led a small service in the C Unit, where prisoners with special medical needs are housed. The handful of attendees included a prisoner who would be released in two days.

Shannon and the prisoner, a man with large blue eyes and white hair, read from a script called "If God Should Speak." Everyone in the room wished the prisoner well.

"Praying is a dangerous thing," the prisoner said while reading from the script with Shannon. "You could wind up changed, you know."