By Rev. Mr. Charles Williams
On Sunday, November 6, 2016, Pope Francis celebrated Mass for the Jubilee of Prisoners in St. Peter’s Basilica. In his homily Pope Francis said: “Today we celebrate the Jubilee of Mercy for you, and with you, our brothers and sisters who are imprisoned. Mercy as an expression of God’s love is something we need to think about more deeply.” He also said: “I wish to reiterate the importance to reflect on the need for a criminal justice system that is not exclusively punitive, but open to hope and the possibility of re-inserting the offender into society.”
The Pope has chosen this Jubilee Year of Mercy to shine a light on the corporal work of mercy of visiting the prisoner, and on a criminal justice system that is not always just. I have been involved in prison ministry for 10 years and I am convinced that a two-pronged approach is needed to reduce the number of people incarcerated: (1) Advocate for changes to our laws that would result in reduction in the number of people sentenced to prison. (For example, increasing the dollar threshold for grand larceny, which is currently at $200 and has not been adjusted for inflation in 20 years.) (2) Do all we can to support our chaplains.
“But what I really want you to know is that 90 percent of all people incarcerated today are going to get out. That is precisely why we need to support our chaplains. They are the ones who have answered the call to be the face of Christ to our incarcerated sisters and brothers.”
As my role in prison ministry evolves, I now find myself an advocate for chaplains who work in our 31 state prisons and correctional facilities. In order to uphold separation of church and state, these self-sacrificing people of God are not state employees. Therefore, they are without the commensurate salaries and benefits. Since 1923, the non-profit organization, Grace Inside, has filled that void by hiring, training and paying the chaplains for our state prisons. Bishop DiLorenzo of Richmond saw the need to support our chaplains and chose to do so by contributing financial resources to Grace Inside. With his decision to give came a seat on the board of Grace Inside. The Office of Social Ministries asked me to fill that seat to represent the Bishop. Information about the prison ministry in the Diocese of Arlington can be found here.
I can quote lots of statistics about Virginia’s prison system, such as, on any given day there are 30,000 men and women locked up in our state prisons. Or that it costs taxpayers $25,000 a year per person to keep them locked up. (You do the math.) I can also tell you that 56 percent of prisoners are there for nonviolent offenses. I can tell you that 15 percent of prisoners are mentally ill and are not likely to receive treatment while incarcerated.
But what I really want you to know is that 90 percent of all people incarcerated today are going to get out. That is precisely why we need to support our chaplains. They are the ones who have answered the call to be the face of Christ to our incarcerated sisters and brothers. They are the ones listening and helping change lives, so that when folks get out, they won’t repeat their mistakes. Please be supportive so that God can continue the good work He has started in the men and women who serve as our chaplains.
Rev. Mr. Charles Williams is a deacon in the Diocese of Richmond, assigned to serve at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart and in prison ministry.