Bringing Faith Behind Bars

A thriving prison ministry provides a Catholic presence for long-term inmates.

Frank is not your typical Catholic. He is serving a life sentence at Clements Unit, a prison in Amarillo, Texas. Despite his separation from the rest of the world, Frank does not feel alone. He and approximately 1,500 inmates across seven prisons in the Diocese of Amarillo are ministered to by a team of five priests, eight deacons and eighteen lay volunteers who spend their time bringing the "outside" Church to the "inside."

"We try to do all the same things that you do in all your churches," Frank stated. "There is a sense of unity in that when we go to Mass, we are going to Mass with you—the entire Church." During 2010, the Diocese of Amarillo's prison ministry held 167 Masses and 298 Communion services. In September, Catholic Extension donors contributed $50,000 worth of funding to the ministry.

Because priests are stretched thin in these areas, inmates and volunteers often gather in the chapel and lead services or simply sing and pray. Recent policy changes required the "prison parish" to break up into smaller services spread across different sections of the prison. Mike, one of these active inmate leaders, saw it as an opportunity to reach out to other inmates. He explained, "If I can reach someone and tell them they have value, they begin to grow. As they begin to pray their self-esteem rises and eventually they'll reach out and bring a friend, too."

All of the faith-filled inmates at Clements Unit convey that the Church is a positive, stable and familiar presence that makes a tremendous impact on their daily lives. Added Wiley, an inmate serving a considerable sentence, "Can you imagine what this place would be like if we weren't praying? Who would even be able to work here?"

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