The United States has the largest prison population in the world — with a total of more than 2.1 million people incarcerated. The state of Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate nationally and prisons are overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed.
In a vulnerable state, many inmates turn to the protection of gangs to survive. But Deacon Kenny Longbrake, who leads prison ministry for the Diocese of Tulsa, offers an alternative.
Six times a year in Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Oklahoma, from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon, 42 inmates gather for a retreat organized by Deacon Kenny. Many are drawn by the promise of home-cooked meals and limitless cookies throughout the retreat — a rare treat.
Catholic Extension provided funds for a trailer to store the equipment for the retreats, because all supplies have to be brought into the prison.
Inmates are divided into seven groups of six that become a unit — a brotherhood. Each group is given a name from the Gospel, such as “Family of James” and “Family of Luke.”
The retreats offer a series of talks and discussions. Topics center around God’s forgiveness and hope. It is a time for healing, sharing stories and camaraderie. Barriers begin to fall. Inmates start connecting. Suddenly they are finding a group not based on fear and confrontation, like gangs in prison, but a community based in faith and love.
J.D. Langston, an inmate at Cimarron who could not be more grateful for this ministry.
“Even though I’m serving a prison sentence of 150 years, I’ve never felt freer,” he said. His freedom is knowing God. And there are no walls, rules or restraints that can keep him from God.
J.D. (in blue) is part of a faith group at the prison that is bringing a new sense of calm, compassion and community into a seemingly godforsaken place.
J.D.’s story is tough to hear but he doesn’t mind sharing because he believes the worse parts are behind him. After a rough childhood, he became addicted to drugs, was a runaway at age 15 and landed in prison for assault in 1993 when he was 19. After two years, he was released but could not find his footing and quickly returned to prison for assault again. This time for life.
In prison he joined a gang, as most inmates do. Gangs are a way of survival that offer protection in an environment where anger, threat and attacks rule the hallways. “I needed a gang, because when fights broke out, I had to know which side to take,” he said.
Amidst these difficult living conditions, J.D. noticed a prisoner who was not part of a gang and who seemed to be smiling all the time. He was a rarity. J.D. found out he was a Christian and was intrigued.
In 2003, J.D. attended a four-day Kairos faith retreat and was introduced to a loving and merciful God. In telling his story to his fellow inmates that weekend, he sobbed uncontrollably. His spontaneous tears were a surprise even to himself because he was normally tough as nails in prison and showed no vulnerability — he had only cried twice while there, when each of his parents died. “I was hurting all the time,” he said, “but I would never cry, even if no one was watching.”
After Kairos, he told his gang he wanted out. They said he had to remove the gang tattoo on his arm himself or they would do it. He chose to take it off himself, cutting his arm with a jagged Coke can that led to a major infection and sent him to the medical unit for weeks. He now has a horrible scar.
He has since reconciled himself to his life as an inmate. He works with the prison’s administration, giving orientations to new inmates and telling them about Kairos and the pitfalls of gangs. He helps to bring together different ethnic groups and mediate disputes when problems arise. He does public speaking about his conversion and reads Scripture daily. In fact, he has now become that smiling Christian guy who is a mystery to the other troubled inmates until they too experience Kairos.
“He is one of the best evangelizers we have at Cimarron,” said Deacon Kenny Longbrake, who leads prison ministry for the Diocese of Tulsa and organizes the Kairos retreats.
In Eastern Oklahoma, Deacon Kenny supervises prison ministries at all county jails as well as medium-security and maximum-security facilities. The impact is great.
Catholic Extension also supported Deacon Kenny’s further formation in a recent restorative justice course, offered in partnership with Loyola University. He explains why his ministry is so vital.
“For the regular inmate population, the return rate to jail is more than 50 percent and for Kairos participants, it is below 20 percent,” he said.
Prison ministry can alter the culture inside a prison and reduce violence. When inmates connect to something bigger than themselves, they can find dignity, hope, and peace.
Your donation to Catholic Extension can help support ministries like this Deacon Kenny's outreach. Together, we can transform individuals and communities through the power of faith.