The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with a total of over 2.1 million people (about 65 out of every 1000 people in the U.S.) incarcerated. That number has been decreasing in recent years, but it still represents a significant pastoral challenge. To put that number in perspective, consider the fact that if the prison population represented a single city, that city would be the fifth largest in the country.
This past month, Catholic Extension partnered with Loyola University Chicago to offer a Restorative Justice Ministry certificate. Many of the dioceses supported by Catholic Extension have prison ministries, reflecting Jesus’ call to his disciples to visit those in prisons (see Matthew 25:36 and Hebrews 13:3). Over twenty participants, representing twelve mission dioceses, participated in this important program.
The curriculum is rooted in the concept of restorative justice. In contrast to retributive justice, which seeks retribution or revenge for a wrong, restorative justice seeks a restoration of right relationship, or at least as much of a restoration as is possible under the circumstances. Howard Zehr, a pioneer of the modern movement toward restorative justice in prisons, describes it as a response to the needs of victims, who at one time were largely left out of the justice process. Holding offenders accountable to their victims encourages them to repair the harm as much as possible by engaging them within a larger community that supports those efforts. That model resonates well with Biblical notions of justice, which emphasize the restoration of right relationship. Perhaps most importantly, the model supports the victim’s (or victim’s families’) power to offer forgiveness, recalling Jesus’ call to forgive “seventy seven” times (Matthew 18:22).
One of the participants in the Loyola University program was Deacon Kenny Longbrake, the director of prison ministry for the Diocese of Tulsa. He and a number of volunteers work at Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Oklahoma, as well as at the four other prisons in the diocese. Deacon Kenny is honest about the need for such a program in his diocese, which holds upwards of 11,000 prisoners over its 12 state correctional facilities and 31 county jails. He describes the survival mentality that persists among prisoners: the desperation that drives them to join gangs in order to stay alive. Once they attempt to re-enter society, many feel abandoned and return to the same behaviors that lead them back to jail. For Deacon Kenny, the benefit of the retributive justice program was that it offered an opportunity to deepen his understanding of issues touching his ministry: mental health, legal options for those on parole, forgiveness ministry, and issues surrounding re-entry into society outside of prison. He understands the importance of restorative justice: graduates of his Kairos retreat program in the prisons have a far lower rate of recidivism than the general prison population, most likely because they have recovered a sense of being at home within a society to which they have been welcomed with open arms.
Another participant was Benedictine Sister Kathleen Atkinson, a Lumen Christi Award finalist in 2015. As the founder of Ministry on the Margins in the Diocese of Bismarck, Sr. Kathleen hoped that the restorative justice program might deepen her understanding of the theological, pastoral, and legal framework of her ministry. That ministry began when, in 2013, she accompanied a man she had come to know in her weekly Bible study at the penitentiary. He was released, but had to find his way in a city where he knew no one. She met him at the prison gate, invited him into a community of supporters, and eventually built a program that served over 2,000 people the following year. Like Deacon Kenny, she understands the need for prisoners to re-establish relationships within a society if they are to break free of destructive patterns of behavior.
Both Deacon Kenny and Sr. Kathleen began practicing restorative justice before fully understanding its historical roots and its pastoral and legal implications. They intuited that Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 is fundamentally a call to seek out those people who feel excluded from ordinary society: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. And like Jesus, they found ways to manifest God’s love to the imprisoned, helping them to overcome what a leading expert on ministry to former gang members, Jesuit Fr. Greg Boyle, describes as “toxic shame”—the deep-seated sense that one is fundamentally unworthy of love.
The restorative justice program at Loyola gathered experts in theology, law, and pastoral ministry, to help participants gain a better perspective on prison ministry as it exists in their diocese. The program shone a light on the way that prison ministry, like all forms of Christian ministry, are about re-orienting persons and communities towards greater solidarity and love. It is about taking time and effort to insure that all have a home, for Christ is, in the words of Matthew 25, to be found “in the least of these people.”